Thursday, March 22, 2007

The airline goon show

Flying on commercial airlines has become an ordeal. Even if you're one of the elect sitting in first/business, that doesn't save you from endless, degrading delays at the airport or in the cabin if you have to connect from one flight to another, which is typical of long-haul travel these days.

Ma'am and sir, I am nostalgic for the good old days when people just griped about airline food. By and large, the food they serve these days is pretty decent, certainly a great improvement. What's wrong now is the logistics of getting where you're going without going spare in the waiting rooms and security queue.

If your destination (or "final destination," a bit of flight-attendant-speak that always has a slightly sinister ring to me) doesn't have a U.S. Customs station, you get to take your first flight (call it, for discussion, eight and a half hours), then you exit at the transfer airport, collect your luggage, take it through security a second time (even if you haven't left the airside, which is past security), go through the coat-metal-shoes-laptop-watch tap strip tease, and slink toward the gate for your connection, marveling at the number of moving walkways on the way as a recorded announcement at each lets you know "The walkway is ending" every five seconds, even if you've just stepped aboard it.

Finally, you get to the gate, perhaps three terminals away in a different ZIP Code. The electric sign tells you that your plane will leave on time. Sit down and make yourself comfortable, or as comfortable as you can be with another recorded announcement telling you again and again that the nice old lady who asked you to carry a package to her niece may be actually a terrorist keen on seeing how many pieces you can be subdivided into.

But don't make yourself too comfortable. Because, likely as not, the cheeriest gate agent you can imagine lets you know that the flight has been cancelled for "technical reasons," or is delayed. If the latter, you have a shred of hope. The sign that said 18:00 now says 18:30. As the time gets within, say, 20 minutes of 18:30 and there is no boarding call, you can kiss that 18:30 departure good-by. Rinse, re-schedule, repeat.

But while there are things the airline could do to make your time of trial a little more bearable, I'm not here to slag off the airlines. On my most recent trip -- a scenario not unlike the above -- I was convinced that the gate agent was doing what he could to keep us posted. Which wasn't much. Chaos has reached such a zenith that the customer service reps themselves don't know what's going on.

The deregulation, hub-and-spoke system the airlines have been operating under for thirty-some years is broken. It's no longer a case of an occasional glitch; I mean you are, statistically, far more likely if you have a connecting route to find yourself with a couple of hundred other poor sods talking into your cell phone, explaining to your spouse/kids/limo driver that it's now looking like you'll be an hour and a half late, but that could change, and not for the earlier.

How did we get into this situation? The basic answer is that the air traffic system is bursting at the seams. Not enough gates, not enough takeoff slots. And there's no fix for it, at least not one that anybody except me is willing to go public with. For financial, planning, and environmental reasons, it is almost impossible to build a new airport (in the United States and most of Europe) anywhere near a city. Most airports don't even have room for a new runway and taxiways.

Mind you, this is not a safety issue. There is no reason to believe that airport crowding poses any greater risk. Air traffic control spacing for takeoffs and landing remains the same (but with more airplanes using the same taxiways and runways, that's one reason for the delays).

At a major airport you'll see a lot more airline paint schemes than you would have a few years ago. Start-up airlines rarely make money and come and go quietly, but they
appear annually like groundhogs emerging from hibernation at the beginning of spring. On my recent trip I watched in my hotel room a documentary on the BBC about the growth of start-up airlines in newly entrepreneurial India: something like 10 new airlines have been launched in the past two years. That's probably not the problem it would be in the U.S., because India is a big country and most of the new lines fly to cities that had no or minimal service previously.

The capacity problem in the U.S. and Europe is puzzling, because I was under the impression that there are a limited number of slots at any given airport. But spending time in any major terminal will convince you that more people are flying than ever before, with a corresponding increase in flights.

What's behind this situation? The explosion of low-cost carriers. I talked to an Englishman who said he'd flown from London to Amsterdam for 9 pounds one-way. That's ridiculous. According to the BBC program, all the new airlines in India are losing money. To executives of
the el cheapo airlines, it's all about market share. Carry more passengers than your rivals and you can bust their chops, even if you're losing money meanwhile. Everybody's fightin' about a spoonful.

Nobody benefits from this farce. Not the startups, who are sniffing glue if they think they can make money by losing more than the competition. Not the legacy carriers, who must continually cheapen their product to match the bottom fishers. And not the public, who are living a fantasy if they imagine lower-than-low airfares can continue indefinitely, and might find themselves stranded in Sharm-el-Sheikh one morning when their carrier is no longer carrying anyone.

The strategy of attracting more customers, each of which costs you money, might work in some businesses; it was the game Jeff Bezos played for years at could go to a profitable model anytime, but first it had to become the category killer, the company claimed. Wall Street never much bought the story, and Bezos is one smart dude.

So I'm going to propose the unthinkable. In general I'm all for deregulation; I'd even say that for most of the past 30 years it's worked tolerably well in the airline industry. But it doesn't anymore. It's ludicrous to have dozens of airlines that can't make a profit and won't ever make a profit turning our air transport system into a chicken coop. Yes, you can say, but prices have come down. True: at the cost of making air travel hideous. It's all based on the idea that cheap flights are a human right guaranteed by the Constitution and the U.N. charter. They are not. As in any other business, people should pay what good service costs. If that means some U.K hooligans can't fly over to Malaga to raise hell for the cost of a few pints, too bad.

Being an airplane passenger used to be a thrill, and at moments it still is. Passenger aviation is one of the wonders of the modern world. Let's make it manageable and pleasurable again.


Read this post from the blog Any Port in a Storm for a narrative of a Third World–like experience in airline travel. I disagree with the writer only in that I'm not sure US Airways is a great deal different from other airlines. All of them could do better, but I think we have to face it that the cause of the distress is systemic. A lot of the disgraceful dis-service is down to deregulation of pricing. Air travel has become a commodity where the carrier that charges two bucks less on a route is the winner, but to be able to do that, it has to cut costs up and down the line. That means, among other things, operating with a skeleton staff that can't possibly cope with the demands, including those of efficiency, made on it.

I repeat: air travel is not a civil right that must be made available to everyone regardless of their means. If the only alternative to purgatory is to legally impose an equitable price structure, so the industry can provide a decent service for a reasonable profit, then let's do it. Thousands of people a day shouldn't be put through hell so college kids can fly halfway across the country to visit their buds for the price of a pair of high-end running shoes.


David Foster said...

I can't vouch for the truth of this...but I've heard it said that the cumulative profit generated by U.S. airlines--since the dawn of the industry--is a negative number.

Here's a lean production blogger looking at the airline industry--specifically, the Airbus-vs-Boeing faceoff--in terms of lean concepts.

Anonymous said...

Rick, good post, as always.
Off topic, but I have picked you for my Thinking Blogger Award list. See the post here:
If you accept, you will pick five blogs to pass the award on to.