December 21, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the airline industry and holiday travel, we're
joined by, Mark Orwoll, managing editor of Travel and Leisure Magazine, and Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute
at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
DARRYL JENKINS: There's been no change from a year ago. The two biggest problems that we're facing in the airline industry today are almost a drastic shortage of capacity, and the second biggest problem that we're currently facing are just very bad labor problems.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, we just got a fairly detailed look at the relations between management and labor and a few carriers. Are there other bottlenecks in the system, other stresses on the airline industry that you can tell us about?
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, certainly the labor is a very big one right now. That will not go away this year and will not go away next year. As we go from airline to airline who's going through new contracts, United was very, very generous with its pilots and it was so generous that everybody else is lining up to get the same contract. And so every airline is going to be going through this. It will not go only go through it with their pilots, but they will go through it with their flight attendants and their maintenance people, as well. So none of this bodes well for travelers in the short term.
RAY SUAREZ: What about air traffic control and available runways?
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, runways are the biggest problem we have right now. Even if we totally modernized our air traffic system, we could probably only get a 5 or 6% increase in capacity. So all the bottlenecks that we have right now are at airports. Airports are controlled by local governments, and there's always opposition at local communities to building one or more runways. Let me put this in perspective: At the top 25 airports, they account for about 80% of the total delays in the system, and if we were only to add one mile more of runway at each of these places, one mile or two miles, 50 miles in the aggregate, it could reduce 70% of our current delays. And that's an incredible number. But we're not going to see this happen in the next five or ten years because there's so much local opposition to airports.
RAY SUAREZ: That's even with quieter jets?
DARRYL JENKINS: That's even with quieter jets. As a matter of fact, in the last ten years, every year at Washington National Airport, the noise levels have gone down. And every year, local opposition to noise at Washington National Airport has gone up.
RAY SUAREZ: So you're saying that... Boy, it's a pretty grim picture overall. I mean it doesn't sound like there's a lot of give in a system where there's a lot of demand.
DARRYL JENKINS: Yeah, the system is... The demand for air travel is growing at a very high rate, and it will probably continue. Between now and the next ten years, we expect to add on a daily basis 100,000 new travelers day after day after day after day for the next ten years. Now, how are we going to accommodate these people? There's no plan in place currently to do this. Our air traffic system is maxed. Our airports are maxed. Where are we going to park all of these people when they get to an airport? How are we going to shuttle them through the airport? And then we have troubles with labor and other things once they get on the plane. So in the short term, there are no golden bullets out there to fix these problems, and travelers are going to become inconvenienced more and more.
RAY SUAREZ: In some of the big metropolitan areas where the demand is highest, one of the solutions that's being offered is developing new airports to sort of take the pressure off the big famous names, the O'Hare's and the LaGuardia's. Does that offer much hope?
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, to get a new airport takes ten to 20 years, and that's when you have local community support. So in the short run, I really don't expect to see much happening. My message over the last couple of years has been: It will get worse. And I think people should adjust themselves to the fact that the system is jammed. There is no excess space in it anywhere and problems will get worse. So when they go to the airport, the thing they need to take most with them are excessive amounts of patience.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark Orwoll, you agree with that diagnosis?
MARK ORWOLL: I'm afraid I do. And in fact, Ray, I I'd say I think this is perhaps the best impetus that Amtrak could have to build some more of those high-speed trains that they've just started up here on the East Coast.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what can the traveling public do to either insulate themselves from tremendous inconvenience or protect themselves if they do go down to the airport for a scheduled flight and find there's either going to be a long delay or an outright cancellation?
MARK ORWOLL: Well, those are two different questions. The first part of your question, what can they do in the planning stages, there are several things. First off, I would make sure that I booked a flight as early in the day as I could. When there's a cancellation or a delay, it has a ripple effect that can affect flights far into the afternoon and the evening. So the earlier you fly, the less likelihood there is that you'll encounter a delay. I would also use a paper ticket instead of an e-ticket. It's often easier to have those tickets endorsed to another airline if you find yourself facing a cancellation and you need to try and use your ticket on a competing airline. I would pack defensively; that is to say, I would prepare to be delayed and having to stay in the terminal, possibly even for a long time, to the point where I would recommend people take a change of clothing, that they bring bottled water, food. If you're traveling with kids, you'd better have games and ways to amuse them for 12 hours, if possible. I must tell you that I have a personal vested interest in this. As we're speaking, my mother is flying from California to LaGuardia Airport. I'm supposed to go pick her up, and the last I checked, her flight's been about an hour delayed.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, I'm interested in what you have to say about e-tickets versus paper tickets, since the carriers are encouraging people to use e-tickets.
MARK ORWOLL: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: If you talk to older travels who remember frequent flying before the days of deregulation, a ticket was like money, you could just go from one desk to another. But I thought that now, with many, many different published fares from all different carriers, it's not as easy to go from one to the other to the other.
MARK ORWOLL: That's exactly right. And at the time that you book a ticket, you can actually request a paper ticket instead of an e-ticket. E-tickets, however, do have benefits. You can't lose an e-ticket because, in fact, the ticket actually exists only in the airline's computer. If you want to change the date or the time of your flight, you don't necessarily have to pay a $75 or $100 penalty fee to make that change with an e-ticket. If you lose a paper ticket, you could be out of luck. So there are drawbacks to having a paper ticket. But in times like this peak holiday season, where we're experiencing weather problems, labor problems and a lot of people flying, having a paper ticket is probably good advice.
RAY SUAREZ: As you look down into your crystal ball for 2001, do any of the stakeholders, the airlines, the FAA, the flying public, the unions, show any sign of changing any of these variables in a way that might help ease the congestion for the near term?
MARK ORWOLL: Well, President Clinton just recently directed the FAA o establish a new organization, a semiautonomous organization that would be charged with looking into ways to improve the air traffic control system in this country. The many people who work diligently and very well in our air traffic control system are doing a great job, but it is an outmoded system. Anything we can do to improve the ATC system in this country will probably help, and that is something that is in the works right now. In general, though, I have to tell you that most travelers, just regular people going on vacation or traveling for business, are pretty pessimistic about the future of air travel. I don't hear a lot of people saying good things about what's going to happen next year.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark Orwoll, Darryl Jenkins, thank you both.