(Update: I'm happy to give the spokesman for the Air Transport Association his say in his posted comments. But I cordially take issue. The airline industry has consistently failed to address the atrocious problems associated with mounting delays and the stranding of passengers on airplanes for long periods of time. Inadequate health and safety provisions for passengers are the issue. So is dishonest reporting of operations data, including flight diversions and cancellations. And if the ATA has problems with the passengers' rights movement's "mission creep" into areas other than stranded passengers, that is something the ATA needs to address with someone other than me.
We have a real and growing crisis in domestic air travel. I have never known passengers to be so angry, and much of the anger is prompted by bad customer service, indifferent management, and the expectation that every time you go to the airport, something unpleasant is likely to occur. Flight delays and cancellations are a routine occurrence. Every business traveler I know is fed up with the major airlines -- and these are people who understand the issues.
The ATA has blamed everybody but the major airlines that fund it for the problems. Yes, the air traffic control system is a mess and it's getting worse. Right now, it's being held together -- such as it is -- only by heroic efforts by controllers on the job. (And by the way, all those controllers Ronald Reagan hired when he fired the striking ones? They're all hitting retirement age).
Where has the industry been all these years as this obvious air-travel crisis developed? Paying top management big bucks, humiliating the workers they haven't fired, meekly going along politically with the F.A.A. as that inept government agency utterly failed to deal with congestion and outdated technology, that's where. Why hasn't the ATA been screaming bloody murder about the federal government's abject failure to bring the U.S. air-traffic system up to speed?
Instead, the ATA was busy putting together that silly "Edna" video campaign to try to blame the private jet industry for the problems of air-traffic congestion. Or applauding the risible White House stunt last Thanksgiving that opened a few military air lanes for commercial traffic, which of course then had to funnel itself right back into the same system.
The time has come for the major airline industry to cut the jive. Tell it straight. We are in a real jam, and it is going to be with us for years. NextGen is, as Mike Boyd calls it, "YesterdayGen" -- and even if NextGen does ultimately help alleviate congestion (which lots of people don't believe), it's more than a decade behind schedule, and still years away from operation. This is no way for a major world economic power to run its air travel system.
The sooner we all get on the same page, the better prepared we'll be to start finding solutions. Not all airlines are egregiously at fault, but the ones that are will simply have to start dealing honestly with their customers -- or government will step in. I'm convinced of that.
And yes, air fares will rise. We need to get used to that. In return, air service must improve. The airlines need to get used to that.)
Kate Hanni's Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights issued a "report card" on the industry today and it isn't pretty. Here's a copy: final2007reportcard.pdf
Kate's group is focused primarily on one issue: How airlines treat passengers who are stranded on parked planes, amid deteriorating conditions, for three hours or more. (In some cases last year, passengers sat in growing distress on parked planes for 12 hours and more). And what needs to be done to require airlines to provide for basic in-cabin health, sanitation, food and water; to give stranded passengers timely, reliable information, and to provide a way for people to get off stuck planes after a certain number of hours.
The airline industry is adamantly opposed to the group's push for federal legislation (bills are pending in both houses of Congress), insisting that it can handle the problem itself.
But it hasn't handled it. Instead, the industry's mouthpiece trade group, the Air Transport Association (ATA), has attacked Kate Hanni personally and, as shown in the following statement it issued today, has tried to muddy the issues.
Here's the statement the ATA issued:
"The Air Transport Association responded to a report issued by a consumer group critical of the airlines on customer service and delays, calling the group's claims baseless and not constructive. ATA went on to say that carriers are aware of the serious problems created by flight delays and noted that improving the country's outdated air traffic control system will address the core issue of delays. Steps have been taken at the individual carrier level as well as in concert with other stakeholders in the airport and government communities to address these challenges," the ATA said."
The disingenuousness in that statement lies chiefly its claim that "flight delays" are the issue -- and not airlines holding people for three to 13 hours in parked planes without adequate food, water or ventilation, and as passengers suffer through added indignities like unusable toilets.
How many stranded passenger instances have there been? Thousands, by Kate's group's count. By industry count, there were 462 flights last June alone that sat on tarmacs with passengers unable to move for at least three hours, and in many cases far longer.
Per usual, knuckleheads in the local press and cable network television media, who don't seem capable of doing reporting beyond what they've been told to put in their notebooks or cameras by the last flack they spoke to, keep confusing the issue.
No, NBC4 Washington, there were not merely "thousands of delays" in the air-travel system in 2007.
There were millions. Do the math. Industry data show that well over 25 percent of flights last year were delayed. There were 11 million flights. Allowing for the percentage of those flights that left the U.S. for another country (whose operational performance isn't reflected in the delay statistics), that still indicates that about well over 2 million domestic flights were delayed in 2007.
The ATA sniffs that criticism is not "constructive," while obfuscating the issue -- as if the Air Traffic Control system is responsible for not emptying overflowing toilets on stuck planes.
The airline industry doesn't seem to be getting the message that it had better sit up and pay attention to what it needs to do -- or will be legally required to do -- about stranded passengers and the crummy way they've been treated. “Who would think it would take a law to ensure passengers on a stranded plane get a drink of water and a working toilet?” New York State Assemblyman Mike Genaris, who drafted the landmark passeners' rights law that took effect Jan. 1 in New York State, asked me not long ago.