SUMMER'S OVER. NOW FOR FALL'S CRISES.
By Joe Brancatelli
September 20, 2007 -- Finally! The end of this awful summer of our travel discontent. When autumn arrives on Sunday we can, at least officially and chronologically, believe that some of the delays, the sub-human treatment and the all-around misery of air travel will disappear.
I'm a cockeyed optimist, of course, so I'll embrace autumn as a chance to turn the metaphoric page and look ahead to the next crises.
Take a day or two and revel in the fact that the summer we've come to love to hate is over. Then I suggest you batten down the proverbial hatches because here comes more crap that will make our travel less comfortable, less friendly, less convenient and less productive than ever before.
A SHORTAGE OF RJ PILOTS
There is a delicious irony in this one: Airlines ramming those hateful regional jets (RJ) down our throats and clogging the nation's skies and airports with the tiny, delay-creating aircraft are running out of pilots to fly them. Why? Because the commuter carriers that fly the RJs at the behest of the Big Six don't pay enough.
Commuter carriers have never paid much, of course, but RJ pilots put up with the lousy pay much as minor-league baseball players put up with low wages. Eventually, they knew, there'd be a call up to the major leagues, where the money is good and the working conditions are better. But with the Big Six slashing their traditional jet flying, call ups to the majors are few and far between. And since pilots can often make more money as a career truck driver than a career employee of a commuter carrier, there's virtually no incentive to fly RJs. The result? Commuter carriers have lots of assignments from the Big Six, but they are running out of people willing to crew the planes.
A simple solution would be for regional airlines to pay more, of course. But that's not likely to happen because the Big Six pay the commuter carriers so little to fly the routes and carry the codes. If they hike pilot pay, they'd lose money--or they'd have to fight the Big Six for better flying rates. So this is one time Big Six parsimony could work in our favor. Faced with paying more for RJ service, the Big Six might be tempted to resume flying real jets with well-paid pilots who work directly for them. That could mean more comfortable planes and fewer flight delays. (I told you I was a cockeyed optimist!)
A SHORTAGE OF AIR-TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS
If this summer proved anything, it's that the airlines are like petulant children. They demand the right to fly whatever planes they want to fly wherever they want to fly them whenever they want to fly them and to hell with the laws of physics. Given the spoiled-brat behavior of the airlines, you'd think that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would do anything it could to keep its air traffic controllers happy. But just the opposite has happened and air-traffic controllers, fed up with the martinets who control the FAA, are retiring in droves.
The roots of this particular crisis stretch back to 1981. Many air traffic controllers went on strike and newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan showed what a tough guy he was by firing about 11,000 of them. The FAA had to rebuild its core of controllers and hired more than 9,000 new ones in the next three years.
Last year, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey decided she'd out-Reagan Reagan. After negotiating to a contract impasse, Blakey imposed her own terms on controllers. She cut the starting salary of new hires to about $32,000 (down from as much as $50,000) and eliminated incentive pay for controllers who move to tougher assignments or take on supervisory duties. She also imposed a picayune set of new work rules, including a dress code.
Controllers chose to leave rather than work under the new rules and pay scales. Since controllers can retire at age 50 after 20 years of service or at any age with 25 years, most of the post-1981 hires are eligible to pack it in. And many have. By some estimates, retirements are running at three times the FAA's internal projections. Where will their replacements come from? Blakey certainly doesn't care. She left the FAA this month for a cushy job with an aerospace-industry trade group.
A SHORTAGE OF SMART SECURITY
The admittedly ham-fisted attack on Glasgow Airport this summer should nevertheless have been an urgent wake-up call. It's not just airplanes and passengers who are targets of terrorism. Long lines of customers waiting to check in for flights, check or claim luggage, clear security or board planes are much easier to attack than the aircraft parked at the airport.
The car-bomb attack in Glasgow failed, but only because the terrorists were idiotic amateurs. Better equipped, better trained and more sophisticated attackers might do better. Long queues at the airport have virtually no protection from suicide bombers who walk into the ticketing lobby or run vehicles into terminal buildings.
How to fight this form of terrorism? The answer is obvious. "Moving passengers more swiftly through to airside will, in itself, reduce the threat," said a report issued by an all-party committee of the British House of Commons. "Speeding up check-in times and reducing the security queue should be a priority for airports and airlines."
Seen any evidence at all that airlines, airports or the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have done anything to reduce airport lines? No, I didn't think so.
A SHORTAGE OF PAYMENT METHODS
Noticed how some U.S. carriers have begun promoting alternate ticket-payment systems like PayPal? They're not doing it to make it convenient for you or because they are suddenly thinking outside the box. They're doing it because they are preparing to charge you for the right to charge a ticket purchase to your credit card.
Airlines claim they pay a cumulative $3 billion in credit card fees to banks, American Express and other card processors. Most businesses consider credit card fees part of the cost of doing business. But not the airlines. They don't want to pay them. So they are pursuing two strategies: Urging us to use other, cheaper payment methods and getting up the courage to shift credit card processing fees on to us. This trend is already underway overseas and it's only a matter of time before it arrives here.
Will the airlines get away with charging us a fee for using our credit cards? Probably. After all, they've closed their city ticket offices, so we can't go there to pay in cash. And if we try to use cash to buy a ticket at the airport, we pay their airport-ticketing fees--and we get the fish eye from the TSA to boot.
So if the airlines say you'll pay extra to use your credit card when you buy a ticket, what are you going to do about it? Stay home? Hey, there's an idea…
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.