Thursday, August 15, 2013

Victor Davis Hansen: Flying in the United States

I have wondered lately whether a weekend in Guantanamo Bay would be all that much worse than flying in the United States. Imagine that we treat Khalid Sheik Mohammed in the manner we accord everyday passengers: put him in a tiny chair, with arms crammed together and tucked between the rests — with another inmate on each side. And then we bolt him down there for eight hours. He has to share his toilet with 100 others. The ceiling is about 5 feet high, the seat continually moving while he urinates. We feed him airline food, make him watch airline shorts on the video, and have him go through a TSA security routine twice a day, all the while telling him that he is scheduled to walk down the hall for his exercise at noon, while we cancel, delay, and reschedule his long anticipated walk.

Dr. Hansen goes on the describe his recent flight:
The first trip from California to Wisconsin took 18 hours and five cancelled flights. 

You can read the entire saga here. By the way, I have dealt with the same United Airlines' policy of paying for Economy Plus only to find a United employee in my seat -- with no refund.

On four occasions since the last week of January, I have had to spend an extra, unexpected night on the road (one in Pittsburgh, two in Chicago, one in Nashville) all courtesy of United Airlines.
Flying these days, no matter what you do, is just a horrible experience.

In March, 2010, I ran a seven part series explaining why the airlines should be re-regulated. The conclusion is here. This Reagan Conservative is highly reluctant to advocate the government grow in any way, but it is past time to fix this mess.

Note: Before commenting about re-regulation, please read the entire series.

And, if you have a flight planned, check out our Airline Crisis Survival Guide, the #3 most popular item in the history of this blog.


  1. I flew regularly on business from the late 1960s thru the early 1990s out of New York, St. Louis, Atlanta, Mpls./St.Paul, and DFW. Two things were most important: frequency of flights and on-time performance. (Flying on expense account (coach), ticket price was not my major concern.)
    Ironically, in retrospect, safety of a "reasonable" level was expected, but by today's standard's -- zero crashes/fatalities--flying was amazingly "risky". I believe it is fair to say that ignorance of weather factors was perhaps the greatest risk element. As you so well know, that has changed as weather science has advanced.

    I will speculate that business flyers today have not adjusted their scheduling expectations to account for the increased/increasing(?)frequency of weather disruptions. I, back in my flying days, either oblivious to or ignorant of the risks, would accept landing in Buffalo on an icy runway with a 50 mph crosswind. Or fly from St Louis to Atlanta the night of the great tornado outbreak in April of 1974.

    Today, the airlines and the air traffic contol system will not "let" a business traveler take those risks. Perhaps, just perhaps, a little more slack in the traveler's schedule (and emergency rations in the brief case) are required ... for safety's sake.

  2. So what is the point of this blog entry? The linked article never explains the reasons for the delays from LAX - ORD. Weather? Bad luck?

    TSA and Customs are not under control of the airlines. Outdated airport design, where you have to leave a secured area and reenter it for a DOMESTIC flight, is not under their control either.

    UA will refund your Economy Plus ticket if you simply request it. There's a place online to do so. I've had occasions where my account is automagically credited, others I've had to initiate. I've never had a problem getting said refund. I have no idea about their 'bumping' policy out of Economy Plus - I've never heard that happen before especially since they are forfeiting revenue which they are loathe to do.

  3. Brian,

    No, UA will not. If you have flown one of the two segments (even though you purchased two), they will NOT refund your money. I had to make a major stink on that same subject when an air marshall bumped me out of a seat from DEN to DCA. UA's position was since I had an upgraded seat on the first leg, they didn't have to credit me for the second leg even though I was back in coach! Eventually, I got a credit -- no refund.

    The point of this article is that in spite of much better accuracy of weather prediction, much better navigation (GPS, CAT III), better capability of the aircraft themselves, and much improved, and less expensive, computational power flying is regressing in the U.S.

    This imposes tremendous, yet mostly hidden, costs. There are hotel bills, taxis, meals, etc., not to mention productivity loss, when these unexpected extra nights on the road occur.

    Every other industry seems to be able to take advantage of these capability improvements except the airlines.

  4. It is my impression that the most significant variables that apparently serve as the foundation of your argument for re-regulation are, in fact, the direct result of the existing regulatory structure.

    Is it not a federal agency that imposes ground stops because of weather?
    It certainly has been a federal agency that has repeatedly failed to upgrade the navigation system. It would be illegal and irrational for an airline to attempt to operate outside this regulatory structure.

    If airline managements are as incompetent and irrational as your points make them out to be, obviously giving up readily achievable profit opportunities, I find it illogical to believe that they would do any better under the byzantine set of rules and regulations that would certainly layer on top of the existing complexity of the industry.

    The quality of management would go down under regulation. Exhibit A for my argument is the history of the railroad industry. The Interstate Commerce Act and subsequent legislation gradually bled the industry of effective leadership for a century. Deregulation in 1980 led to a renaissance.

    Forgive me for being a "homer", but Southwest has come from nothing to top dog in the industry by good management. Why bury them in regulatory purgatory? Avoid United like the plague. Astute shareholders will ultimately find better managers. That is, unless the opportunity for profit improvement is eliminated by re-regulation.

  5. Richard,

    1) I have switched from UA to AA. I believe UA is hopeless with current management.

    2) That said, on my recent trip to NYC, I pleaded with AA to send me ICT-DFW-LGA rather than my scheduled ICT-ORD-LGA even holding up my cell phone showing the line of thunderstorms headed for ORD. The agent kept telling me AA had not issued "waivers" (they did after the thunderstorms hit) so I couldn't be rerouted even though there was space on my requested routing.

    3) Got to ORD, thunderstorms hit, then did the three hours of standing around the gate with the departure time being pushed back another 15 min. every 15 min.

    There was no ground stop (until the storms hit). You may choose to call this a "weather" delay. I don't. I call it a lack of good management. I'm certainly willing to grant that a decade ago, the tools to prevent or minimize these problems didn't exist. They do now. Airlines stubbornly choose not to use them.

    Note: While SWA serves ICT, there was no practical alternative that day.

  6. Do you have thoughts on why the airlines choose not to use the tools? Not sanctioned by Feds? Liability? Other?

    All things being equal, the positive effect on passenger attitudes and equipment utilization would push management to use better tools. Mere intransigence seems an unlikely (but possible) explanation.

    Hope SWA can expand their ICT service.

  7. A speculative "P.S": I would not be surprised if SWA were to give your ideas a warm welcome, focused as they are on equipment utilization. They have always been aggressive on that front. If you were to "convert" SWA, the rest of the industry would be pressured to follow.

    The fact that you, being based in Wichita, would be giving positive feedback on SWA's new service there would be a "plus." Your excellent communication skills should make it a "slam dunk". :)

  8. Richard,

    Several years ago, I spoke with the just-departed President of an airline (the airline merged and is no longer independent) and asked him that very question. His answer was "inertia."

    I also have a close relative who is manager of airline solutions with a software company. He says they see better customer service during weather and irregular operations strictly as a "cost." Thus, they do not wish to invest in it.

    What I don't think the airlines get is that I used to always fly ICT-DFW, ICT-STL, ICT-OMA. Those are now driven 100% of the time mainly because flying is a crapshoot these days. Two summers ago, I drove ICT-MLI (9 hours) on business rathe than fly. I can't believe I'm the only person now driving the intermediate length trips. So, while the executives may look at fixing this as a cost, they are likely losing considerable revenue.

    Thanks for the comments, Richard!


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