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The Tentacle


June 21, 2002

The Great Airline Train Wreck

Ronald W. Wolf

I need to vent, and you're stuck with listening to me. The airline industry, in trouble even before last September, is a disaster with most airlines losing money, and they are almost powerless to change it. Running head-on into them are our airports - now with more federal management. Does the airline industry mirror the federal government by having no concept of what service is?

Recently I flew to Tennessee for a funeral, arriving at the airport ahead of the time specified by the airline - to allow for airport security checks and all. It doesn't take a genius to figure that you don't purchase airline tickets to go to a funeral in advance. But purchasing tickets one or two days before flying triggers a requirement for additional security checks.

In my case, that shouldn't have created a problem. The airline, which doesn't need to be named (it's the same as the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet), has, right there at the baggage check counter, an x-ray scanning device for suitcases. It would be better, though, if it worked. This one didn't. That required hand searching of luggage headed for the airplane's hold by specially trained slugs.

Hijackers aren't stupid. They know - it's not a secret - that purchases of tickets on short notice will result in additional security searches. What's to stop future hijack plotters from buying tickets in advance? Anyone with a credit card can order tickets over the Internet. Hijackers are not going to walk up to the ticket counter and plunk down cash. They'll try something else next time.

Some of the federal security people are worthless. The job of the ones stationed at the head of the jet ramp consists of holding your boarding pass and driver's license while someone else dumps the contents of your carryon bag onto a table and a third checks your shoes. In my case, with the planedue to drive away any minute, that meant stuffing extra underwear, camera, magazines, and books back into the carryon and wondering if there was time to lace my shoes up. I forgot to grab my driver's license and boarding pass from the federal security guard as I passed within a couple of feet of him.

At the end of the jet ramp, I realized I didn't have either. So I ran up the jet ramp, and there was the lazy idiot looking right down the ramp at me. He watched me run by. He could have said, "Wait, you forgot this" but said nothing. And since he was staring down the jet ramp, he wasn't watching what was going on around him. How much confidence should anyone have in him?

BWI worked better a few months ago when there were soldiers with rifles. I think they scared the employees more than passengers, and some workers there need another scare to wake them up.

This trip was not the first time I've flown since September 11th. Another airline, who shall also remain nameless - but they're southwestern sweethearts, has even longer lines but because they are profitable can afford to hire and train people to staff the counters and move lines of passengers along. They understand service.

The flight from BWI to Cincinnati, which was "too full" for two people to get seat assignments in the same row with one-day advance purchase, had about 50 empty seats, and I sat in a row by myself. Either the airline is so poorly run they don't know how many people are on the plane, or about 50 people expecting to get on that flight are still waiting to get through security.

The Greek letter airline had one person to staff the gate in Cincinnati for the connection to Nashville. This poor slob had to check identification and wave boarding passes under a scanner for the 120 or so people getting on the plane, then leap over to the counter to help someone there, then jump back to the line to board a few more people, then back to the counter to make an announcement on the public address system, then back to the line of people waiting to board. Despite the angry people snapping at him, this beleaguered, exhausted guy was reasonably pleasant. He understands service.

Additional personnel alone will not improve security (although it will improve service). The technology to rapidly and effective screen baggage needs to be improved, and ionizing radiation - x-rays - needs to be replaced. Sound waves are used widely for scanning in medical applications and are far safer than radiation. Other scanning technology can be developed. The government, and that means you, needs to fund far more research into scanning and detection devices to help with security.

The hub-and-spoke system is broken, and the airlines cannot afford to fix it. Most airlines have a variety of different aircraft that can only be used on specific routes. They can't afford to standardize equipment, which is a business cost savings, and standardization won't work with the system they use anyway.

Their equipment spends too much time on the ground (why is it that an aircraft that is at the gate nearly two hours before it takes off cannot be prepped and ready to fly on time?). Their personnel (too few in number because the airlines cannot afford to hire more) are indifferent and harried. The industry is a mess. And the hub-and-spoke system concentrates too many passengers in hub airports, creating congestion and the eed for truckloads of federal tax dollars for airport expansion.

Both the airlines and the federal government stumble badly on service. The federal government is not a business, and limits exist on how much private enterprise can be mimicked. But service is one area the government can do better, and their employees must be accountable.

As for the airlines, they are private businesses - government loans aside - but lousy at it. The airlines can't make a profit primarily because they are badly managed and don't understand good service, not because travel is down. There are successful business models for the spiraling airlines to follow, but they are too dumb to see them.



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