Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hype Arriving at Gate 1600

The airlines and their pals the pols are increasingly afraid of the potential for a major breakdown in air traffic over the year-end holidays. Every time I check my e-mail I have another breathless press release about how they're rushing to make it all o.k. Don't worry! We're on top of it!

Even the White House has stirred itself and got into the act. Uh-oh, now I know for sure we're in the jackpot.

Note the tone in the media. Now we have an official White House promise! It's NEWS! Jayzus, I can see the correspondents posing in front of those airport tote boards already, and it's not even time for the network news.

Anyway, you heard the following here first:

--The risible "Thanksgiving Express Lanes" proposed by the White House. Selectively opening up air-traffic lanes reserved for, but little used by, the military in the Northeast will be the equivelant of opening up an extra lane on some ramps on I-95 north of Miami. It will funnel traffic into a slightly wider space and promptly pour it right back.

--After they announce caps that will put limits on the numbers of flights at JFK and LaGuardia (and they will), some of that traffic will spill over to Newark, which already has some of the worst delays in the country.

--The White House says the government is "encouraging airlines to take their own measures to prevent delays." That's simply a reiteration of "promises" the airlines have made in a desperate attempt to sidetrack a federal Passenger Bill of Rights law, versions of which are now in both houses. Conspicuously missing from all of the vague "proposals" are guarantees, or mandates, on how many hours stranded passengers can be kept on board planes for the convenience of the airlines. That is the third-rail that nobody in government really wants to touch.

--The phony pose of rushing to action will hand the airlines a beautiful opportunity to announce further domestic capacity and schedule cut-backs, except on lucrative business-travel routes and domestic routes that feed into international connections. You know, as a patriotic gesture.

--The Executive Branch? Come on. Every one of them, from the President to the head of Transportation and Homeland Security departments, and the inept FAA, is a short-timer, planning to cash-in the minute the next president raises a hand to take the oath of office. You really don't think they're serious about fixing a very complex problem, do you? There's no upside to that. Just hold a press conference to Show Your Care. But hey, there's a war on! Where's your flag lapel-pin?

--On the other hand, the White House has cleverly positioned itself to win no matter what happens. If the holidays go off without a major hitch, the Bush administration will take credit for it (and just watch how fast some media dimwits rush to credit the risible Thankksgiving Express Lanes, when any actual credit should go to luck and good weather). If it all goes to hell, the White House is on record expressing its concern and desire for action.

Meanwhile, the House Aviation Subcommittee held a hearing today to examine the preparations by airlines and airports to handle the holiday travel rush.

“The airline industry has had a very tough year in terms of customer service,” said Rep. Jerry Costello, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, which heard from airline and airport executives. That would be the understandment of the month (so far).

"No one expects them to eliminate all delays, but it is how they mitigate delays and how they treat their customers when delays happen that matters,” he said.

The witnesses noted that the airlines have hired additional staff, particularly customer relations personnel, and will use what the subcommittee press release calls"enhanced communications with passengers to inform them about delays and time-saving practices." (Right. Airlines say they bought some new PCs and software to fix the problem. Ran down to Best Buy and picked up a few things.

The statement added, "The airports have also added staff, and will have more food and water available and the necessary equipment to get passengers off of planes if necessary in case of long delays."

Well, we'll see. The very last thing the airlines want is still another debacle with passengers stranded on plans for six, nine, 12 hours. Very bad PR, that. But if bad weather hits in a system with no slack, during a peak travel season, with all planes full, there may be nothing they can do to prevent another ugly occurrence.

Kate Hanni tells me that she and her 20,000 or so volunteers in her Coalition for Airline Passengers Bill of Rights are loaded for bear during the new travel-torture season, which starts tomorrow.

Kate, whose energy has been unflagging as strandings became a huge issue this year, is virtually single-handedly responsible for the current rush within the airlines, the Congress and now the White House to get on the popular side of the issues of stranded passengers, both those stuck on parked planes and those stuck in airports where airlines have no ability to accommodate them, sometimes for days.

As soon as the subcommittee posts a transcript of the hearing, I'll link to it.

The subcommittee heard testimony from among the usual suspects:

Richard Anderson, chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines; David Barger, the chief executive of JetBlue; Edward P. Faberman, executive director of the Air Carrier Association (and a lawyer who represents airlines and airports); Krys T. Bart, executive director of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport and the chairman of the American Association of Airport Executives; and Gregory Principato, president of the Airports Council International – North America.

We'll see what they had to say for themselves once a transcript is available.


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