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Expert Talks About Travel Industry’s Challenges

June 11, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now, the hassles of getting out of town. Why does it seem even more complicated this summer? Judy Woodruff has our update.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Summer travel is already underway, as many Americans head to the nation’s shores, mountains, and overseas. But those traveling by air will face new headaches and longer lines before take-off. According to the Air Transport Association, the number of passengers traveling by plane will increase 3 percent over last summer, to 209 million.

Air travelers are expected to cope with even more delays, too. But one hurdle to international travel has been cleared, for now. The government announced Friday it’s easing new passport restrictions for travelers flying to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean, after the processing time for new applications quadrupled over the last four months.

PASSPORT APPLICANT: I applied 10 weeks ago, and that’s like the maximum that they say, and they haven’t even started processing it yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The new rules requiring passports for travel in and around North America took effect in January. The government says it expects to issue more than 17 million passports this year, a 40 percent increase over 2006. That’s caused worries and missed flights for many travelers.

PASSPORT APPLICANT: It’s been stressful and very frustrating knowing we may lose all of the money we have on the plane and our reservations and all that, but it looks like I’m actually going to get it now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Until October, travelers will be able to go to those regional destinations with a valid government I.D. and printed proof that they have applied for a U.S. passport.

Easing of passport rules

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on what's behind these delays and changes, we turn to David Field, U.S. editor of Airline Business magazine.

David Field, thank you for being with us.

DAVID FIELD, U.S. Editor, Airline Business Magazine: It's my pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: First, the passports. What's behind this easing up for flights to the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and Bermuda?

DAVID FIELD: The State Department simply could not keep up with the volume of applications. People learned about the rule early, but they waited until late to put in their application. Even though the State Department had hired a lot more people to process the applications, it simply could not keep up with the volume. You're talking about delays of 10 weeks, even more, and serious problems with people having to cancel trips. Business trips to Canada, vacation trips to Mexico, people could not go. And they complained to their travel agents, to their congressmen, to their senators, and the State Department heard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So they're easing up. So what do people have to have, if they're now, what is it, up until October?

DAVID FIELD: Up until the end of this fiscal year...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The end of September.

DAVID FIELD: ... which would be the end of September.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do they have to have?

DAVID FIELD: Have a driver's license or another government-issued I.D. and the printout of a piece of paper from the State Department passport Web site, travel-state, travel/state, saying, "I applied." It will give you a status update and tell you how long you may have to wait for your passport.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. And, again, that's that, until the end of September. After that, you will have to have a passport to go to any of these places. All right, let's talk about air traffic overall. All the word we're hearing is there are going to be more delays. Why is that?

DAVID FIELD: Part of it is that the airlines are finally back to where they were before September 11th. The airlines are basically back to where they were in the spring of 2000, which was the renaissance, the peak of air travel these days, before the dot-com boom, before the terrorist attacks. Airplanes were full; people were paying lots of money; and airlines were adding flights left and right.

After September 11th, they cut back. Twenty percent is sort of the gross number for the cutbacks. It was a little bit more serious than that, in that not only were about 20 percent of the flights taken out of the system, many of the flights remaining were put onto newer but much smaller aircraft, which is why, when you fly these days, you are not going to see an empty seat.

Use of smaller aircraft

JUDY WOODRUFF: So wait a minute. You've got as many people as were flying before 9/11, but smaller aircraft, which means, what, you have a harder time getting booked?

DAVID FIELD: You have a harder time getting booked, and you have a slightly increased burden on the air traffic control infrastructure. But people are getting turned away or people are having to pay more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do the airlines go to smaller plane, cheaper...

DAVID FIELD: They're cheaper to operate. They tend to be newer. And they are flown by people who are paid less than people flying the really big jets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So smaller planes, meaning it's harder to get the flight that you want at a particular time. What else is going on out there?

DAVID FIELD: What else is going on is what's not going on, the fact that we haven't had a major change in the infrastructure situation since the year 2000. We've added one big, new runway at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, which has done wonders for that airport, but it hasn't eased the strain nationwide on a system that's still relying on radars and other air traffic control technology that is rapidly approaching obsolescence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying more people flying but only one new runway in the entire country?

DAVID FIELD: One new major runway in the entire country.


DAVID FIELD: Which means we're relying on the same infrastructure, and we haven't updated the technological infrastructure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what do you mean by that?

DAVID FIELD: We use radars, and we use radios and stuff that you see in movies from the 1950s. It's more modern than stuff from old, old movies, but you're still talking about mature technology when we should be transitioning to a satellite-based technology.

I have a GPS in my car. You probably have a GPS in your car. You put a GPS in the cockpit, and you have GPS's in the air traffic control towers, infinitely more precise knowledge of where an airplane is, infinitely more precise knowledge by the pilot, by the air traffic controller, and that means you can use airspace much more efficiently, more landings per hour, more takeoffs per hour. Airplanes can fly closer together. They don't have to be spaced out as far apart as they are now. You simply dramatically increase the efficiency of the airway.

Flying earlier in the day

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying the technology is available, but not all airlines, not all airplanes have it, is that what you're saying?

DAVID FIELD: Well, many airlines and airplanes have it. What doesn't have it is the air traffic control infrastructure of the Federal Aviation Administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what are the airlines doing to cope? Now, they know, you know, they know this is coming. What are they doing to cope with this onslaught of traffic?

DAVID FIELD: They're warning people. They're making the bad headlines you're seeing. They're telling people, "It's going to be an awful summer." And they're putting out tips about what to pack, and what to wear, and when to get to the airport.

They're lobbying very heavily for funding, a new funding mechanism that would pay for the satellite-based technology. And I have to tell you, the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, is very strongly behind it, but, a, it's complex; and, b, it's expensive; and, c, we have yet to debate and decide on how we're going to pay for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But in terms of customers, flying customers, they're telling you, "Get to the airport earlier," book, you were saying, earlier in the day.

DAVID FIELD: Yes, a flight early in the day is less likely to get delayed. First flight of the day is likely to get out. And unless you live in a very bad weather area, it's less likely to be affected by bad weather.

The bad weather comes in the afternoon, evening, as the boomers move up the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, and head -- boomers have great radar, because they head right for the airport.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don't mean baby boomers; you're talking about thunder boomers.

DAVID FIELD: Thunder boomers. Thunder boomers.

Avoiding certain airports

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you were also saying earlier there are certain airports, if you can avoid them, to try to avoid them, because they are in an area where the storms hit. Chicago...

DAVID FIELD: Chicago is probably the airport to avoid the most -- forgive me, Mayor Daley. It is great airport, but it's an old airport. It needs to be updated. It's an airport where there are connecting flights. And what I really hope people will do is pay the extra money and take a nonstop flight rather than getting the cheaper flight, where you change in Chicago or change in Cincinnati or change in Atlanta.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it is more expensive.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Any other advice for the flying passenger?

DAVID FIELD: Yes, be real patient. Do not drink alcohol. It's just going to make you be impatient, and it is not going to help. And don't rely on the precision of the printed timetable. Do not tell your cousin that you'll be there at 3:02 p.m. "I'll be there on the Tuesday afternoon flight sometime maybe." It's not going to be fun. Take it easy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pack an extra toothbrush, maybe an extra change of clothes.

DAVID FIELD: Oh, absolutely. As my mother used to tell me, "Bring clean socks."

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. David Field, thank you very much, with Airline Business Magazine.

DAVID FIELD: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much. We appreciate it.