In the past couple of weeks, the politicians have talked a lot about government regulation (and the lack thereof).
Not so much has been said about the deteriorating condition of our national infrastructure, and how we don’t invest nearly enough in it.
In traveling cross country by air this past week I got a close up look at the problems created by the intersection of the two issues.
On Wednesday, we got to sit at a gate at National Airport for almost two hours waiting on a weather delay at our transfer point, Atlanta. They had heavy rain and a low ceiling.
Now, most modern passenger aircraft are well equipped, and the pilots are highly trained, to land and take off in all kinds of bad conditions.
The air traffic control system in this country, however, is not nearly so prepared.
Even with perfect conditions, the system at most major airports is overloaded or close to it. In many cases the computers and other equipment being used are outdated and inadequate for the job.
The result is that when things are even slightly less than ideal, everything falls apart.
That’s the infrastructure part. Here’s where the lack of regulation in the airline industry makes a bad situation worse.
Up until the late 70’s, the federal government regulated pretty much every aspect of air travel. Not just prices but also routes and schedules. The primary point of competition for the airlines was service.
After deregulation lots of new airlines appeared to compete with the established carriers in the new atmosphere. Prices, at least on the flights between major cities, declined.
The quality of service for passengers also began a steady decline until arriving at the general mess we have today.
A big part of the problem is the hub-and-spoke system implemented by many airlines, including Delta which has a huge hub at Hartsfield.
In good times, scheduling almost all their east coast traffic through the same airport offers the company lots of economic advantages, especially being able to handle many more passengers.
And when things are not so good? Well, I guess we certainly have no reason to complain about the transportation system falling apart since we’re only paying for a seat, not for service, right?
Ok, so maybe some of this is my fault for choosing to fly Delta (as I’m always thanked for doing as we taxi to the gate). I got sucked into the fraud that is the current state of airline frequent flyer plans.
But they certainly are not alone in using this system. If I go with United, I could get caught in their major choke point in Chicago. American has theirs in Dallas.
Essentially, instead of one national air transportation system, we have many different companies each running their own with little or no coordination on the part of anyone.
I’m certainly not advocating that the federal government take over the airlines or even that we move back to the regulatory situation that existed in 1975.
However, as with regulation of the financial industry (or the lack thereof), when it comes to air travel, there must be a middle ground position between complete control and complete chaos.
I suppose, in light of all the other crap going on with mortgages and the stock market, fixing the airline industry is going to have a low priority. It’s likely that fixing the air traffic control infrastructure will as well.
So, while I’m waiting for all that to happen, I need to find an airline that doesn’t route everything through Atlanta.
Most people are used to a certain level of quality, but when we fly, we see it as an expensive, short-term experience, so we sacrifice everything for the lowest possible price. And then we compare that experience against our typical level of quality, and it doesn’t stand up. The key is to spend the whole flight thinking about how much money you saved. :)