The Brancatelli File



November 8, 2001 -- Eight weeks after the tragedy, it has already become a cliché to say that things will never be the same. So I won't say it. Still, who would have ever thought we would be discussing these items as the news of the moment?

If you can remember as far back as the spring, then you'll recall the nation's airlines were demanding taxpayers build them more runways and more airports to accommodate their predilection for running smaller and smaller planes. That led the ever-compliant Department of Transportation to ask for comment about "market-based" solutions to aircraft congestion. In light of the September 11 attacks, however, DOT has trashed the original deadline of November 19. A posting in the Federal Register earlier this week noted that DOT has seen a "significant decrease in airport congestion at formerly busy airports." In other words, we're free from a specious argument on airport capacity until the next time the nation's major carriers begin filling the skies with 50-seat jets and claiming they need relief from their own scheduling cupidity.

The collapse of airline traffic has had no effect whatever on the maelstrom that is Chicago O'Hare. The Mayor of Chicago and the Governor of Illinois are squabbling again over future expansion plans for O'Hare and that is flaming the passion of the suburban communities surrounding O'Hare, the downstate interests who want a new airport built in a corn field near Peotone, and even the burghers of Indiana, who insist Chicago's best expansion option is in Gary, where there's an airport lying as fallow as the Peotone corn fields. Only mad dogs, aldermen and Chicago newspaper columnists purport to understand the politics of it all. But if I were a taxpayer in the Land of Lincoln, I'd be wary of spending money on more concrete when the hometown airline (United) is teetering on the edge of implosion, the number-two carrier (American) has long wondered whether it had any long-term staying power at O'Hare, and the future of commercial aviation as we knew it is, well, gone with the wind.

Ariana Afghan Airlines, the flag carrier of Afghanistan, has disappeared. Even before the terrorist attacks of September 11, the once-proud little airline had been struggling to survive. It stopped flying to most international destinations two years ago after the imposition of United Nations sanctions. Since the United States began bombing Taliban interests, the airline has simply disintegrated. According to reports filtering out of Afghanistan, Ariana's offices in Kabul are deserted. The entire staff has been sacked and the carrier's fleet of aging Boeings and Antonovs was damaged in the bombing. Founded 55 years ago with the help of the original Pan Am, Ariana was the last national institution in Afghanistan not dominated by the Taliban. In fact, the airline's pilots, engineers and managers were virtually the only Afghan men still permitted to wear Western clothes.

U.S. flag carriers long ago abandoned service to sub-Saharan Africa. Now they've exited the continent completely. TWA dropped Cairo flights earlier this year and Delta eliminated its Cairo route after September 11. The upshot: No U.S. airline flies to any destination in Africa. Frequent flyers hoping to reach African business destinations now must rely on inconveniently timed connecting flights through Europe and endure 16- to 36-hour marathons via Amsterdam, Paris, London or Frankfurt. Connections to African destinations deteriorated further last month when financially distressed Swissair abandoned many of its African routes. The biggest hit of all came Tuesday when Sabena was declared bankrupt and stopped flying. The Belgian carrier had an extensive West African network and decently timed North American connections via Brussels.

Competing House and Senate versions of the airport security bill have been submitted to a conference committee and, eight weeks after the September 11 attacks, the chances of passing any meaningful legislation seem extremely dim. The Senate version, which passed 100-0, would federalize security screeners under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. The House version, which passed primarily with Republican support, would assign security oversight to the Transportation Department while leaving the screeners in the employ of private companies. Both sides in the dispute claim they will not compromise on their core principles. Sadly, however, security probably won't improve markedly under either bill. Why? Neither proposal treats airline security as a national security matter. Neither bill puts screeners in the category of a police or military force. Or, as some wags have so accurately noted, neither bill even raises airport security to the same level of importance as the federalized police force that protects the politicians.

Had September 11 never happened, the big business-travel story of the moment would have been the transition of twelve European nations to the Euro on January 1. Even Euro boosters now seem skeptical that the rapid transition period--all 12 currencies are due to be phased out in as little as 60 days--is workable. No Euro notes or coins will even be available until the January 1 transition day. Experts are expecting ATM machines to run short of the new currency almost immediately. Shopkeepers may not have sufficient funds, either. For travelers expecting to be in the Euro zone--Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal and Finland--during the first weeks of the switch, be prepared for disruptions and very short tempers. And bring plenty of credit cards because that may be the quickest, easiest (and only) way to make purchases.

This column originally appeared at

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