We’ve tackled the unpleasant topic of air travel a couple of times this summer.
As a subject of interest, it won’t go away.
A couple of recent cases in point, about a week old, but worthy of attention nonetheless.
We begin with Business Week, recently demoted from its 35-year reign as MUDGE‘s #1 absolute all time favorite business magazine by the new (160-year old!) #1, The Economist, the best magazine on the planet. But, BW is always a fine read, and this was the cover story for the Sept. 10 issue:
Long lines, late flights, near collisions—everyone is unhappy with the state of the U.S. air travel system. Unfortunately, no one, especially not the FAA, seems able to do anything about it
When Marion C. Blakey took over at the Federal Aviation Administration in 2002, she was determined to fix an air travel system battered by terrorism, antiquated technology, and the ever-turbulent finances of the airline industry. Five years later, as she prepares to step down on Sept. 13, it’s clear she failed. Almost everything about flying is worse than when she arrived. Greater are the risks, the passenger headaches, and the costs in lost productivity. Almost everyone has a horror story about missed connections, lost baggage, and wasted hours on the tarmac.. More than 909,000 flights were late through June of this year, twice the level of 2002.
And if you think the Summer from Hell is over, fasten your seat belt. The FAA predicts 1 billion passengers a year will take to the skies by 2015, a 36% increase from the current level. FAA officials say this year’s Labor Day crunch could become an everyday flying fiasco within eight years, costing America’s economy $22 billion annually.
There was a time not long ago when the head of the FAA would be the last person you’d expect to express public doubts about potential catastrophe. Today, Blakey is unabashed about the rising risk of flying. There have been 339 incidents so far this year where planes got too close to each other or to objects on the ground, up from 297 in the same period last year. On Aug. 16 a passenger jet on the runway at Los Angeles International Airport came within just 37 feet of another airliner—the eighth such incident this year at LAX alone.
“While it is the safest form of transportation,” Blakey says, “deep in your heart you still know that [when you’re] flying at 30,000 feet with no safety net you’re counting on the system—a system that is at the breaking point.”
So why is it that we can put a man on the moon but can’t fly him from Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., without at least a two-hour delay? While Blakey bears some responsibility for the abysmal state of air travel, she follows a long line of FAA chiefs who failed to put much of a dent in the agency’s to-do list. It’s not a lack of money. Last year the FAA did not spend all of the money it was allocated. Nor is it a lack of knowhow. Existing technology could easily meet the demands created by the exploding number of fliers. Nor, for that matter, is it security concerns.
Instead, it’s a fundamental organizational failure: Nobody is in charge. The various players in the system, including big airlines, small aircraft owners, labor unions, politicians, airplane manufacturers, and executives with their corporate jets, are locked in permanent warfare as they fight to protect their own interests. And the FAA, a weak agency that needs congressional approval for how it raises and spends money, seems incapable of breaking the gridlock. “The FAA as currently structured is impossible to run efficiently,” says Langhorne M. Bond, administrator of the agency from 1977 to 1981.
When no one’s in charge, no one can be held accountable. Small aircraft operators blame the big airlines for scheduling too many flights out of the major airports. The big carriers say the smaller operators aren’t paying their share of what it takes to maintain the air traffic control system. The controllers complain they are understaffed and underpaid, and that their facilities need repair. The FAA says it needs new revenue sources to invest in new technologies. Congress says the FAA needs to manage the money it has better. And passengers blame everybody in sight, but aren’t willing to spend a dime more on tickets.
The balance of the story is useful, but check back here after you take a look at it, and let’s compare notes, shall we?
[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]
BW places the blame on the antiquated air traffic control system, and paints this discouraging picture of its replacement’s chances of appearing in many of our lifetimes:
The FAA has been trying to shift to a satellite-based system, as well as better computer and automated communications networks, since the 1980s. But this rational, not particularly controversial goal has been difficult to achieve because the agency has to please so many constituencies. Ask Charles Leader, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant and aircraft industry executive who heads the Joint Planning & Development Office, a consortium of seven government offices, which is charged with designing what the FAA calls its Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). The new system would allow planes to fly straighter paths, closer together, even in bad weather, freeing up space in the air and reducing work for the controllers. It’s expected to cost upward of $44 billion—half paid by the government for facilities, half by airplane owners for gear in the planes. The catch: The current completion date is now estimated to be 2025. As a result, Leader talks not in years but in “epochs.” The parties involved include the FAA, NASA, and the Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, and Commerce Depts., along with the White House. “It’s very challenging,” Leader says. “Not because anyone is against it. There are just so many agencies.”
Ugh! Looks cool, though…
Regardless of what is or isn’t causing this climatic weirdness, its impact wouldn’t be half so bad if not for the staggering volume of air traffic attempting to navigate through and around it. I’ve never seen anything like it. Long waits and holding patterns are routine now, even on clear sunny days. And an ever-growing percentage of that traffic is made up of regionals. Check out those evening conga lines at Kennedy, and you’re liable to spot a 500-passenger Boeing 747 sandwiched between four 50-seaters. Elsewhere it’s similar. At LaGuardia and Washington-National, the number of RJs and, to a lesser extent, turboprop feeder craft, is astonishing, often outnumbering the Boeings and Airbuses of the majors.
Smith’s thesis is that the airlines have systematically downsized aircraft, in order to fly fewer empty seats, and as a result ever more passengers are being flown in ever smaller airplanes, cluttering up the taxi lanes in the ways he and Business Week illustrate.
The system is broken, and we beleaguered passengers are caught between the gears. Because, just like with our lead-painted toys from the home of always low prices, we passengers demand the absolute lowest fares, regardless.
Around the same time the BW issue appeared, one of MUDGE‘s favorites, Stanley Bing, weighed in:
As we enter into this Labor Day Weekend, with so many of us hitting the skies to enjoy this last little lick from the ice cream cone of summer, I thought it would be timely and appropriate to offer what seems to me to be an achievable, realistic draft of a document that has been much discussed by lawmakers and other philosophers: A Traveler’s Bill of Rights:
- You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do while imprisoned within the air travel system can and will be completely ineffective.
- You have the right to get to the airport very early, only to find that your trip has been canceled.
- You have the right to accept the excuse for that cancellation or not, whatever.
Bing continues in this vein:
Best of all is this right, not exercised nearly enough:
20. You have the right to stay home.
It’s it for now. Thanks,