Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nobody Asked Me

I thought I’d throw my own two cents in on this article that appeared in The New York Times. Even if they didn’t ask me for my opinion.

How Air Travel Can Be Made Less Annoying

I’ll quote a part from Patrick Smith , just because I like him and his column, Ask a Pilot. Well, that and the fact that he comes closest to saying what needs to be said.

”Carriers should consolidate flights with bigger aircraft and reduce their dependence on regional jets. At some large airports, regional jets comprise more than 50 percent of the total number of flights. That’s half of all traffic carrying about 20 percent of the passengers. Frequency of flights is a huge selling point for airlines, but in practice it’s an illusion when a high percentage of flights run late.“

I agree -- as far as it goes. Just in case you’re reading this blog and you’re confused about the issue of airport capacity, let me assure you, no one in the industry is confused. All airports have a finite capacity. All parties recognize this fact. It is how that reality is dealt with that is in contention.

Once again, we’ll stick with my standard figure of 60 aircraft per hour per runway. You get one airplane per minute -- either taking off or landing. That works out to 30 arrivals per hour (which have to leave again at some point) and 30 departures per hour. (Even this figure assumes a good airport with high-speed exits off the runways, a good ATC system, etc.) Airlines want to schedule their aircraft as if the airport’s capacity is always 60 aircraft per hour. That way, they sell more seats and make more money.

I want their schedules limited to the average bad-weather capacity of the airport. In other words, something less than 60 airplanes per hour. Each airport will be slightly different in that places like Seattle have more rain and fog than places like Phoenix. And herein lies the fundamental problem.

Who decides the capacity at each airport ? Or any airport ? What are their motivations ? Brand X Airlines want to schedule 40 airplanes per hour, alone. FatChance Airlines already has 30 airplanes scheduled during the same hour. But the capacity (even if the weather is perfect) is only 60 per hour. Who tells them “No”. The airlines aren’t supposed to talk to each other about it. That would be a violation of anti-trust laws (which have been waived on occasion.) The truth is, the airport operator and the FAA could both say “No” but they don’t. At least not often enough.

The FAA has the excuse of deregulation. Nobody deregulated safety -- and I can make a strong case that overwhelming the ATC system because you’ve overscheduled the airport is a detriment to safety -- but we won’t get into that at the moment. Deregulation takes us to the 500-pound gorilla in this conversation. This newspaper article asks the wrong question. None of this matters if the airlines can’t make money. The industry has to be sustainable. And the cold, hard truth is that the passenger airlines are not. They’ll have a good year here or there. But in the long term, they have been losing money since deregulation. We’ve bailed them out, changed this and changed that and still, they consistently lose money.

Deregulation has been a national policy failure. Period. It has cost us jobs, pensions, viability and our world leadership position (if not our sanity.) We’ve fallen from the days of PanAm -- once one of the best known companies in the world -- to arguing about 3 inches of legroom and whether an airline can afford to serve us a bag of peanuts.

We don’t have to return to full-fledged regulation of the industry. But what we’re doing isn’t working. The place to start fixing this mess is in limiting the number of aircraft that can be scheduled at our commercial airports. In other words, it is time we recognize reality and begin implementing common-sense regulations.

By the way, just because it’s The New York Times, don’t turn your brain off.

"The airline industry is suffering through one of its worst summers ever, with travelers pulling back on spending and fuel costs rising."

Fuel cost aren’t rising. Oil had gone from $140 a barrel down to $63. The airline industry still can’t make money. But they can still make flying a miserable experience.

Don Brown
July 30, 2009


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