Forty years ago I experienced my very first commercial aircraft flight(s) on a trip from Charleston, WV to Sarasota, FL to visit my grandfather. Though the second flight leg, from Atlanta to Sarasota was canceled, something I found a bit unnerving as a teen-aged newbie flyer traveling alone, everything turned out okay. I suppose in retrospect it was good preparation for things to come.
In the intervening years, as a veteran business traveler, I have experienced thousands of flight legs, millions of air miles, and I dare say at least a hundred canceled flights. What I have not experienced until this year however is the kind of meltdown of the American air transport system that is going on at present.
When America’s largest air carriers decide to park, at one time, an entire aircraft type for inspections, re-inspections, or re re-inspections relating to an eighteen month old (non-emergency) airworthiness directive, something is broken indeed. As chronicled in the April 10 USA Today, and Joe Brancatelli’s Biz Travel Life, over a quarter million air travelers have been inconvenienced in the past week as the result of American Airlines’ grounding of its MD 80 and 90 series fleet, for the 2nd time in two weeks.
When four, count ‘em (ATA, Frontier, Skybus, Aloha) airlines go bust in the same week that four of the six legacy carriers (Delta, Northwest, Continental, United), also formerly bankrupt companies, are pursuing shotgun weddings, something is amiss. Ditto for the fact that, according to a study published on 4/18 in USA Today, air travel in the U.S. took longer (30-40% longer in many cases) in 2007 then it did twenty years ago! And while all this is going on, the Department of Transportation’s uppermost priority is… get this… drumroll please… increasing denied boarding compensation for the handful of travelers who actually wind up getting bumped from a commercial flight. Yikes!
1. Contrary to what one might conclude when boarding one crowded commercial flight after another, we’ve still got too many aircraft seats chasing paying fannies.
2. Carriers are being allowed to use the bankruptcy process as a low cost way to gain unfair competitive advantage. Why, for example, should American and Southwest have to compete against an entire field of competitors who (some more than once) have used the bankruptcy process like a washing machine to wipe away the burden of debt and employee obligations? Perhaps the door to the bankruptcy court should henceforth be limited to “first time flyers.”
3. The FAA has been lame in dealing with flight scheduling, the enforcement of safety rules, and the management of its own workforce. Found recently to have been a bit too cozy with Southwest, and perhaps others, they are now engaged in a chest pounding smokescreen that precipitated the recent groundings. Further, by allowing air carriers and airport operators to schedule more flights at peak times than could possibly be handled by an aging infrastructure on a bluebird day, they are as much at fault as the industry itself. This is an agency just begging for privatization.
4. It’s the fares, stupid. Air carriers, most notably the legacy carriers, seem bent on self destruction by maintaining fare structures which absolutely hose the business traveler while putting leisure travelers on the same planes at fire sale prices. You can be absolutely certain of two things when you board your next flight: No two passengers on your plane paid the same fare, and everyone got a cheaper seat than you did.
5. The absence of a cogent national energy policy is killing us, and the aviation industry is but a single manifestation of that fact. According to IATA, the price of jet fuel has increased by 69% yr/yr. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are some leisure fares out there where the fuel surcharge portion of the ticket fee exceeds the basic fare. One thing each of us can do is to elevate this item from our own consciousness to the national stage, and demand reasonable solutions from those who would ask for our votes.
End of rant… I’ve got a plane to catch.