Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Wanding the Wheelchairs

This is the week a lot of airline industry analysts have been waiting for. The airlines are releasing their operating statistics for May, and the question is: Has demand for air travel begun to collapse in face of soaring fares, shrunken schedules and growing hassles?

The answer? So far, who knows? Southwest released its May stats, and demand seems to have held up. But the legacy carriers are yet to be heard from.

(Though here's a story about softening hotel demand from Business Travel News Online.)

On Sunday, I got back from a five-day trip to Southwest Florida, which included a day at the beach. The beach: Sanibel and Captiva islands on the Gulf of Mexico off Fort Myers.

Sanibel and Captiva are among the nicest beaches in the country (Fort Myers, on the other hand, is a dump.)

Anecdotally, I'd say the collapse is on, just judging from the dearth of tourists on the two islands. Last year at this time, the natives say, you could barely tell when the winter season ended and the summer season began, because the crowds (and traffic on the mainland) remained.

Last weekend, traffic was thin. Beaches were sparsely populated. A woman at a bike rental shop said it was the worst post-Memorial Day season she'd ever seen.

The only aspect of travel to Southwest Florida that seemed normal was Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, where a T.S.A. martinet was barking orders at bewildered people in wheelchairs the other morning, and generally creating the kind of checkpoint confusion that actually enhances the opportunity for trouble.

"I need you to press everything as flat as possible in those bins!" she was shouting. "Shoes on the belt, not in a bin! You may not bring on KY Jelly."

Clearly, this woman was making it up as she went along.

Getting from the checkpoint queue to the magnetometer required navigating around needlessly erected barriers and a line of about six people in wheelchairs who were waiting for a special gate to be opened. T.S.A. screeners meticulously wanded the old people in their wheelchairs, creating even more confusion.

The screener-martinet kept shouting at the customers, who couldn't figure out which way to walk to the magnetometer. After I got through, I ratted her out to a supervisor, who rolled his eyes.

Now, as I have said repeatedly, the T.S.A. under Kip Hawley in general has done a bang-up job of improving the checkpoint atmosphere at airports all over the country. Hawley himself stresses that a confused, chaotic checkpoint is by definition a checkpoint with security problems.

Local T.S.A. supervisors mostly get it. Somebody needs to have a come-to-Jesus chat with the T.S.A. authority at Fort Myers, though.


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