The Brancatelli File



May 16, 2002 -- I bet you didn't know that we're smack in the middle of National Transportation Week.

Doesn't that make your life on the road better? Did you remember to wish the flight attendants "Happy National Transportation Week" when you disembarked? Have you picked up the burgers for your National Transportation Weekend BBQ yet? Aren't you glad your tax dollars are hard at work supporting the bureaucrats who invent mindless federal designations like National Transportation Week?

But in the spirit of National Transportation Week, allow me to suggest a few one-sentence solutions for what's ailing our air-transport system. Nothing too complicated, you understand. Just simple, one-sentence, common-sense suggestions to make things better. Sentences so simple that even the simpletons who run the nation's major carriers can understand them.

Airlines slashed their schedules immediately after September 11 and, as if by magic, planes started running on time again. But this summer we could be back to the bad old days of delays. Why? Airlines are restoring flights to the unsupportable, pre-9/11 days. This is an indication of the moral corruption of the country's major carriers: They knowingly schedule flights that will run late, they pad the flight times to disguise their fantasies and then they defend their lies by claiming they are merely offering "passenger choice." Thankfully, there is a simple solution to this repugnant state of affairs: No flight should be permitted to operate if there aren't airport slots available for it at the scheduled departure and arrival times. The Federal Aviation Administration has compiled capacity benchmarks for the 30 largest airports and that's where we should start. If an airport can only handle 50 departures and arrivals per hour, airlines should be restricted to 50. No cheats, no exceptions, no fudges.

Let's not waste another moment deconstructing the nation's Byzantine fare system. We did that two weeks ago. There are many simple ways to fix the system, but here's just one: All fares should be non-refundable, but based on a one-way purchase. Non-refundable tickets would benefit airlines because they would no longer need to overbook. Besides, why should airlines take a risk that theaters or concert promoters don't take? Once they sell a seat, it should be sold. An airline seat is a perishable commodity and travelers should not be able to purchase a seat, then return it. On the other hand, making all ticket purchases one-way transactions will break the airline's absurd Saturday-stay rules that unfairly penalize frequent business travelers and reward infrequent leisure travelers. This non-refundable, one-way regimen would also help create the "secondary ticket market" proposed below.

There is no reason to allow airlines to continue to make tickets non-transferable. In fact, there is no reason why there even needs to be a name on an airline ticket. Legitimate security concerns can be addressed by requiring all travelers to produce proper photo identification at check-in. So why not make all airline tickets bearer instruments? A ticket would represent the reservation of and purchase receipt for a specific seat on a specific flight, just as a sports ticket represents the right to occupy a designated seat for a specified performance. Travelers could resell, swap or barter airline seats as they see fit, just as buyers now do with concert and sports tickets. Enterprising brokers or existing travel agents could profit by making the secondary market in buying or selling seats.

Don't mindlessly defend frequency-reward programs because you perceive them to be your only perk for a hard, tough life on the road. The truth is that frequent-flyer reward programs depress competition and that is bad for us. Eliminating frequency-reward programs would unleash a torrent of new initiatives aimed at winning the business of business travelers. The price of first- and business-class tickets would plummet, in-flight services would improve and the airlines would start concentrating on tangible benefits like seat comfort, on-time performance and baggage handling. You'd be shocked at how creative the airlines would become if they didn't try to solve all of their problems by throwing miles at us. (By the way, ending the reward programs would force up the airlines to concentrate on recognition plans that offer upgrades and other perks that frequent flyers really want.)

Give credit where credit is due: American Airlines has shown how civilized a coach cabin can be if only you offer travelers a reasonable amount of legroom. No airline should be allowed to sell seats with anything less than 34-inch seat pitch. The cost to the airlines would be minimal since an American-style increase in seat pitch would only require carriers to eliminate about two rows of seats per aircraft. And since, on average, about three of 10 seats the airline industry flies are already empty, there would be virtually no impact on revenue.

In the dreadful weeks after September 11, all the king's horses and all the king's men said the same thing: We need to make the airline system safe--whatever it costs. Now that the bill is coming due--and the Transportation Security Administration is finally beginning to assert authority over the ramshackle patchwork of existing airport security--all the talking heads are bitching and moaning about the cost. The politicians even blocked an increase in the security fee we pay--and claimed they did it for us! A professionally run, competently operated airport-policing operation is going to cost--and cost plenty. It's time to shut up--and pay up.

While we were grieving for the dead in the days after September 11, the airlines put their slimy corporate fingers in our pockets for a $5 billion tax grant. We'll never see that money again--and don't think the airlines won't be back for more any day now. Before we give those buffoons another penny, I say invest in a revival of the nation's rail network. Amtrak itself probably needs to go, but the nation's first, tentative step toward high-speed rail service (the Acela train in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor) has been a spectacular success. Acela is kicking the metaphoric butts of the Air Shuttles up and down the East Coast. In the right markets, under the right conditions, and with the right operators, high-speed rail is a better investment, and better for the country, than air service.

This column originally appeared at

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