Tuesday, July 15, 2008

And so it continues . . .

The rising disenchantment with U.S. domestic air travel continues across the nation. Services are being canceled everywhere, prices are going through the roof and airlines are finding new and more creative ways to rip you off, such as their creatively charging $15.00 per suitcase. The air travel system simply isn’t working. Now every airport is a zoo and air rage is always bubbling just beneath the surface.

Three days ago I took an early morning flight from New York to St. Maarten to relax. The plane was overbooked and the famous American Airlines were offering $300 per passenger for anyone who would disembark and take a flight twelve hours later. Two people agreed, but as we remained sitting on the runway it was apparent we still had three people too many. No surprise here. The ante was raised to $500 per passenger and three people, who had obviously played this game before, jumped up, took the money and ran.

So guess what happened then? We sat on the runway for close to an hour waiting while they off-loaded the I’ll-take-the-money crowd’s baggage. Great result. Five people had money but nowhere to go, and the rest of us full-fare payers sat on the runway for an hour while American Airlines scrambled to make their margin. Just another petty annoyance and now typical of virtually every flight you take in the U.S.

There’s a new book just out called Terminal Chaos. It is written by George Donohue, a former top ranking Federal Aviation Administration official and insider. He says that today’s massive delays, cancellations and airport chaos are the product of more than two decades of bad decisions. According to Donohue, rising fuel prices are just providing political cover for airlines like American, United and Delta to retool and go after their smaller, more profitable competition like Southwest. Part of this routine is quitting less profitable services to smaller airports. American Airlines, who are about to layoff 7,000 people or 10% of their workforce, are cramming passengers onto smaller planes and reducing the number of seats available at an escalating rate of knots. This leads to more passengers on fewer flights for which airlines can charge higher ticket prices with less and less service. The book details the ways in which Donohue believes the air travel system is broken, including how the FAA and airlines work together to make ridiculously optimistic assumptions about weather, resulting in a routine of over scheduling flights. That, of course, is followed by the inevitable domino effect of departure delays, flight cancellations and customer outrage.

By the way, did you know that iPods, cell phones and laptops have absolutely no impact on airline navigation systems? So why are we being asked to turn them off? Part of the 'customer comes last' philosophy airlines seem to share.

This problem needs a solution, and fast. Bill Gates, now that you’ve left Microsoft, let Melinda run the foundation and come and fix air travel. Please.