Commentary: Airport Hell

How industry and government could improve air travel--now

Ask any airline passenger about his or her travel experiences these days and prepare to hear a horror story that would rival any of Stephen King's. Consider Judith Feldman's harrowing trip from Chicago to New York's LaGuardia Airport in early August. Because of a change made by a gate agent on the outbound leg of her trip, her return ticket had mistakenly been canceled.

Instead of leaving at 1 p.m. as planned, she found herself on standby for overbooked flight after overbooked flight, finally leaving at nearly 10 p.m. for White Plains, not LaGuardia. Worse still, the pilot announced enroute they were refueling and spending the night in Louisville, Ky., where Feldman waited nearly a half hour for help with hotel accommodations. Feldman, a marketing exec for a New York-based entertainment company, finally arrived in Manhattan after noon the next day--shelling out more than $80 for a cab ride from White Plains.

AIR CUSHION. There's little doubt that the Friendly Skies are now the figment of a marketer's imagination. Through July, delays are up nearly 14% over the first seven months of last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That's on top of a 58% jump in the past five years. Consumer complaints about airline service to the Transportation Dept. are up 60% in the first half--with United Airlines Inc.'s labor woes adding to the chaos--despite the airlines' voluntary plans to improve customer service. No wonder Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater summoned airline executives, union leaders, and FAA officials on Aug. 21 to discuss how to ease the crisis.

Let's be clear: There are no quick fixes. But some sensible moves can be taken in the short term to alleviate some of the pain and chaos. Among them: upgrading computer systems to give ticket agents and fliers real-time information on flight schedules. Longer term, the industry and government need to consider more radical changes if they are to solve the mile-high gridlock. That includes overhauling everything from how airport expansion is planned to remaking the FAA.

Certainly, a few good steps have already been taken. The FAA is allowing some planes to fly at lower altitudes to ease congestion and is coordinating daily with the airlines from a national command center.

That's just a beginning. The airlines themselves must recognize how hypercompetition has produced unrealistically congested schedules at the 15 or 20 airports suffering most of the delays. Sure, airlines are simply vying for lucrative business travelers by offering the most convenient schedules. But given the level of consumer outrage, airlines should recognize that a failure to voluntarily cut back may only be greeted with the kind of takeoff and landing controls that Congress just lifted at several airports to boost competition.

Several have already acted unilaterally. For instance, American Airlines Inc. will soon add ground time between connecting flights at its Chicago and Dallas hubs to provide a cushion for weather-related delays and other disruptions. Continental Airlines Inc. has already moved some leisure flights to off-peak times at Newark.

At least one airport exec is also taking matters into his own hands. In an Aug. 21 letter to carriers serving LaGuardia, Robert E. Boyle, executive director of the New York Port Authority, asked airline executives to consider scaling back flights during peak morning and evening hours. When Congress repealed LaGuardia's takeoff and landing constraints in April, the airlines announced some 600 new daily flights from the airport, which would increase traffic by 75%. Although Boyle acknowledges he has "no clear statutory authority," he says that "the airport operator is responsible for avoiding chaos."

But carriers must also accept some responsibility if they publish schedules they can't possibly maintain. Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, is calling for a "truth in scheduling" regulation. Flights that are late more than 50% of the time must be disclosed to consumers when they make reservations. That information is available now, but passengers typically have to ask for it, and almost no one does. Hudson says flights late more than 80% of the time should be discontinued.

It might also be time to try an idea that has long been bandied about by economists: charging higher landing fees during the most congested periods at airports short on capacity. Now, landing fees are tied to the size of the plane, not when it lands. But past attempts to charge peak and off-peak fees have been blocked by regulators and fought by small communities and commuter carriers who fear being priced out of the market. Cornell University Professor Emeritus Alfred E. Kahn, one of the fathers of deregulation, believes higher fees would cause some airlines to use alternative airports, easing congestion at big airports. "You're never going to build capacity sufficient to eliminate all congestion," says Kahn.

As long as capacity is constrained--and delays inevitable--airlines clearly have to do a much better job at managing the aftermath of such disruptions. United, for instance, only recently linked the computers that gate agents use to the airline's main computer systems, giving those agents real-time information about delays and cancellations. The next step: linking airport monitors to the system. And rebooking passengers when flights are canceled or misconnected is still mostly a manual affair. Airline investments in technology tapered off in the early 1990s with the industry downturn, says Ron E. Stewart of Andersen Consulting. But with delays costing the airlines at least $5 billion in 1998 alone, he figures, the industry has incentive to up its spending.

Of course, these prescriptions don't cure the real disease: a lack of air and ground capacity to meet demand. "Nothing really accomplishes very much for the American consumer except expanding the capacity of the system," insists Southwest Airlines Co. CEO Herbert D. Kelleher.

The good news is that there are lots of promising new technologies that could improve the efficiency of the nation's airspace. And Congress in April passed a bill that includes $40 billion over the next three years for airport improvements and FAA facilities and operations. But industry executives fear that a government agency will never have the proper incentives to efficiently manage the needed changes. "The FAA has been singularly unable to acquire and implement modern computer technologies," says Daniel M. Kasper of economics consultancy LECG Inc.

For instance, the FAA has been working on a satellite-based navigation system to enable so-called "free flight." But the software, which would in essence allow pilots to choose their own paths instead of being herded into prescribed routes over ground radar, is bug-ridden and over two years behind schedule.

It's time to follow Canada, New Zealand, and others and privatize the U.S. air-traffic control system, while leaving safety oversight under the federal government. "There is a growing view in this country that some form of privatization might be the proper format to get this kind of work done more quickly and completely," says American Airlines Vice-Chairman Robert W. Baker.

Of course, new runways and airports will be needed, too. Congress has earmarked $3.2 billion for airport improvements next year, up from $1.8 billion this year. But infrastructure demands are growing by about $10 billion a year, figures David Z. Plavin, president of Airports Council International, which represents airport authorities. "You have to make the investment in the system."

GREEN FIELDS. More problematic than money, though, is the local opposition from homeowners and environmentalists that often stalls airport expansion. Boston has been debating the addition of a new runway for nearly 15 years. Only 18 new runways have come online in the last decade and one major new airport, in Denver, since 1990. At the very least, the nation needs a national airport development plan that rises above localized interests.

Airlines and communities should also look more closely at abandoned military air fields as possible "reliever" airports. About 30 such fields, including El Toro in Orange County, Calif., are available for conversion to civilian use. Upstart Shuttle America already flies into the former Hanscom Air Force Base in suburban Boston.

Leadership and creativity are needed all around to preserve the benefits of deregulation--more flights to more places for more people. Without change, the airlines face a raft of efforts to re-regulate their business. And consumers will ultimately pay the price with less service and higher fares. The end result might make passengers long for the days when they could get a middle seat for a one-hour wait on the LaGuardia runway.

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