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Changing Airline Industry Faces Busiest Travel Season of the Year

November 22, 2006 at 6:25 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: The holiday hustle is more of a hassle these days, with an estimated million more travelers than last year taking to the roads, the rails, and the skies, the crowded skies this week. According to the FAA, 25 million Americans will fly this Thanksgiving holiday.

TSA EMPLOYEE: If you have any liquids, gels, aerosols or creams, they must be placed in a quart-sized bag.

JEFFREY BROWN: For some travelers, it’s the first trip to the airport since the Transportation Security Administration announced new bans on liquids, after a plot to blow up airliners bound for the U.S. was uncovered in London last August. The total ban was later modified to restrictions known as 3-1-1.

AMY KUDWA, Transportation Security Administration Spokeswoman: Three ounces, one quart bag, one bag per passenger. Be prepared, and get here early.

JEFFREY BROWN: The result: some confusion.

ALIETTE COTTIN, Traveler: I put a lot of stuff in my carry-on bag, and I have no idea if they’re going to take it away from me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And more airport angst.

CHAD SARCHIO, Traveler: Everything is just a nuisance and frustrating nowadays, I guess, so grin and bear it.

CHRISTINA SARCHIO, Traveler: There’s nothing more frustrating than getting here and not knowing what you need to dump out, what you need to throw away, what you need to check.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new rules have also led to an increase in checked luggage, and that has led to more bags being lost. The good news? Airports today, while crowded, reported mostly smooth sailing and few long delays.

Security screening woes

David Field
Airline Business Magazine
Size does make a difference. Some airports simply do not have the space for the modern screening equipment.

JEFFREY BROWN : And now, more on the pains -- and perhaps we can find some pleasures -- in air travel today. David Field is U.S. editor of Airline Business magazine. Rudy Maxa is a contributing editor with National Geographic Traveler magazine and host of the public television series "Smart Travels with Rudy Maxa."

And welcome to both of you.

RUDY MAXA, National Geographic Traveler Magazine: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Field, let's start with these liquids and gels. How consistent is the enforcement around the country?

DAVID FIELD, Airline Business Magazine: Not at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not at all?

DAVID FIELD: Not at all, certainly from my experience. At some airports, the screeners will have a free baggy that they'll give to people. At some, they won't. At some airports, travelers end up buying them from the sky caps or buying them at a drugstore in the airport.

Some screeners go by the size of the container rather than the weight. It's supposed to be three ounces. Some will just say, "No, that's too big," whatever the weight is.

But consistency is a problem that TSA has had since its very beginning, consistent procedures at each airport, consistent staffing at each airport. And that simply hasn't been the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Rudy Maxa, do you see this leading -- so is each airport different, in terms of the lines and the security situation?

RUDY MAXA: Well, each airport is not only different, but the airport itself is different depending on what time of day you fly. You may have long lines for certain airlines at certain terminals in big cities early in the morning when a lot of flights take off. You may be able to wander in at 10:00 a.m. and only be the second person in line for security. So it varies entirely with the amount of traffic that's going on at any given place at any given time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, David Field, some of these you can put in the infrastructure category. We were talking about the bags problem. We're talking about the security. Do airports have the -- are they big enough? Do they have the infrastructure to handle all these passengers?

DAVID FIELD: It depends on the airport and the age of the airport, but size is the issue here. Size does make a difference. Some airports simply do not have the space for the modern screening equipment.

Many airports do not have the space for the long lines, and you see lines snaking and doubling back on themselves. Many airports simply don't have the width at the fingers going down to the gates themselves, and even a relatively modern airport can find problems with this, particularly with the crowds we're having on a weekend like this.

Online services simplify travel

Rudy Maxa
National Geographic Traveler
We can search fares at 3:00 in the morning. We don't need a travel agent. We don't need a kind reservationist. We can print out our boarding pass before we go...So there are some pluses.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rudy, I know on the plus side one thing is that airlines and airports seem to be better online at least giving information to people about what they can expect.

RUDY MAXA: Well, you know, I get a lot of complaints of people saying, "Oh, my goodness, traveling isn't fun anymore. Flying isn't fun." And they're partly right.

But looking on the bright side, OK, we're not all dressing up in tuxedos and having dinner served on linen in coach and then sleeping in little sleeperettes, as might have happened in the early days of commercial aviation. But remember just 10 years ago where, if you wanted to fly to a city you'd never been to before, you had to rely on the kindness maybe of a reservation agent for one airline to tell you who else might be flying that route? Obviously they're not going to give you any fares.

We can now -- that's now very transparent for consumers. We can search fares at 3:00 in the morning. We don't need a travel agent. We don't need a kind reservationist. We can print out our boarding pass before we go. We can choose our seats and not try to wonder where 24-D might be.

Airports certainly have better restaurants, healthier food, generally, coming our way. So there are some pluses. And you can also get through the airport faster, except for the security lines. You don't have to wait for your boarding pass to print out. If you forgot your ticket at home, you probably have an electronic ticket.

So there are some pluses. Having said that, security is a nightmare. There are more people traveling, so, you know, the empty middle seat is something you'd have to go to the Smithsonian to see on display some day. And there's more lost luggage because more people are checking luggage now, so there are certainly bad things happening, but things tend to balance, I think.

The 'fun' factor

David Field
Airline Business Magazine
Air transportation is a mode of getting from Point A to Point B and not a mode of being pampered, being relaxed, or being treated all that well. So get used to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, David, I don't know if you want to focus on the positives, too...

Tell the passenger, what are we to do? What is one to do, facing the problems that we've laid out?

DAVID FIELD: One is to deal with the reality of today rather than the image of 20 years ago that Rudy was talking about. It's not fun. It hasn't been fun in a long time. It probably isn't meant to be fun. Air transportation is a mode of getting from Point A to Point B and not a mode of being pampered, being relaxed, or being treated all that well. So get used to it. Don't...

RUDY MAXA: I couldn't agree more. I couldn't agree more. You know, we do -- the public wants cheap fares. And American Airlines found that out when they took a couple of rows out in coach, because everybody was saying, "Why don't I have more leg room in coach?" So American said, "Great, we're going to give it to you." The experiment didn't work. People wanted cheap fares more than they wanted more leg room.

And I have a theory about traveling being pleasant. You know, fun is entirely too strong a word to describe flying these days. I shouldn't have used that word. But I find that, if an airline has an esprit de corps, has good labor-management relations, passengers are going to have a better time of it.

Southwest has been a cattle car since it started. Remember, they still don't have assigned seats. You've got to rush in and try to find a decent seat. But you know what? And they don't have anymore leg room than anyone else. People are happy flying Southwest because they have a great workforce that is inspired and doesn't feel like management is taking them to the cleaners, and they have fun, and passengers have fun.

And a couple other airlines, like Continental and JetBlue, are in that category. American Airlines is doing fairly well with labor-management relations, and that's a big improvement over the old days.

But at Delta, Continental, where the employees are really, really upset over having their pay cut and then seeing retention bonuses or even pay bonuses going to executives, you can taste, you can feel the dispiritedness of the airline.

Where the industry is headed

Rudy Maxa
National Geographic Traveler
I think more and more airlines will go to the a la carte menu that will allow you to be as grumpy or happy as you want to be, depending on how much you want to pay.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of workforce, let me ask you, David, about another work force that all passengers now meet up at the airport. That's the TSA. You mentioned them earlier. There's a lot of turnover. They themselves, of course, face these ever-changing rules about what they're looking for. How are they coping?

DAVID FIELD: To judge by the record, not all that well. There is a high rate of turnover. It is, in some areas of the country, very difficult to fill positions.

Basically, it's blue-collar work. It doesn't pay that well. It doesn't pay that much more than McDonald's, and it's hard work. It's kids standing for six and eight hours a day. And even if people are polite -- and very often, unfortunately, they're not -- you're still dealing with a lot of hostility, a lot of time pressure. And you're going through people's bags and looking at people's underwear.

And I have to give TSA some credit. You see enough positive experiences, enough positive screeners who understand that it is a customer service job rather than a law enforcement job, that it's better than it could be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rudy, as we look forward here and what's happening in the industry -- and we did a segment just last week on the possible merger of U.S. Air and Delta. And you see this consolidation coming. Does the problem get worse? Do we get used to it? Or do you see any signs of hope?

RUDY MAXA: I don't know that the problem is going to get better, because if two major airlines consolidate, you're going to have all kinds of workplace frictions. And that's going to rebound to the point I was making a moment ago about an unhappy workforce creating an unhappy environment for passengers and customers.

I think we're going to see more ala carte pricing. You know, it's happening in Canada now where, you know, if you don't check a bag, you get $5 off your ticket. If you print out your boarding -- you know, there are all kinds of little things, incentives that airlines may begin offering us to allow us to be as happy as we want to be.

You know, Northwest has tried this, and interestingly no other airline has picked it up. Northwest is continuing to offer certain more desirable seats for $15. You can buy them 24 hours before your flight if you go online. You know, it's basically saying, "You want a little better seat? Are you willing to pay $15 for it?"

So I think more and more airlines will go to the a la carte menu that will allow you to be as grumpy or happy as you want to be, depending on how much you want to pay.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. I think we're going to have to leave it there. And I, for one, am glad to be staying home for Thanksgiving. Thank you guys both very much, Rudy Maxa and David Field.

DAVID FIELD: Thank you.