Friday, June 18, 2004

I'm Richard. Fly me. Safely, Please.

As a somewhat frequent flyer, I'm always a tad concerned about airline safety, maintenance, and security. You can't help but be concerned when you board a flight that a) the man (or woman) next to you is "cool", b) that the plane is being properly maintained, and c) that the flight crew is in the groove both physically and mentally. In that spirit, there's been a couple of stories over the past few days that reasonable people could interpret as "concerning".

The biggest trend I'm seeing is the struggles of the major domestic carriers - in particular, United and U.S. Airways. U.S. Airways recently emerged from bankruptcy, and could quite possibly be headed for a second round. United is struggling to emerge from bankruptcy, and was just turned down by the government agency responsible for loan guarantees to the airline industry.

Since September 11th, 2001 the U.S. airline industry (in particular, the "majors") has been subsidized by the U.S. government (read: taxpayers) to the tune of billions of dollars. Not a day passes when a report doesn't come across the wire with the management at some airline moaning about the state of the industry. But wait.

If the airline industry is in such trouble, why then would Southwest Airlines recently start service to the Philadelphia area, in a very strong play at one of U.S. Airways main hubs? U.S. Airways stranglehold on the market was instantly broken the day the first Southwest airplane taxied up to a Philly International gate. I'm sure it was quite painful for U.S. Airways to suck up the fare reductions that they had to make in order to compete with Southwest. Too fucking bad. That's what competition was supposed to be all about when the airline industry was deregulated. And guess what? Now United is going through the same thing with startup Independence Air in the Washington, DC market. Again, a stranglehold on a market was broken, and now the main gate holder (United) is forced to be competitive.

So, both of these "majors" are asking for further wage and benefits concessions from all corporate employment strata (except the executive suite, I'm sure), and are crying poor mouth again. Interestingly enough, both of these bloated carriers also, in my own experience, provide absolutely the worst service on the crappiest aircraft of any airline in the industry.

Maybe that's as much of a reason for their troubles as anything. As consumers, we're not locked in anymore.

One other story that caught my attention: the Transportation Safety Administration is testing a pilot program for frequent travelers in the Minneapolis airport. The idea is that frequent travelers can submit to background investigation, including an eye scan and fingerprinting, and if they're cool then the travelers will be issued some sort of ID that allows them to bypass the most onerous part of security screening.

Now, I don't know about you, but even as a frequent traveler myself I'm not crazy about this on several levels. I know security can sometimes be a hassle, but more often than not things seem to be moving along more efficiently now than in the days following September 11.

My reservations about the proposed program are many, but here are two biggies:

  1. Unless I'm arrested for something and new laws inspired by Orwell's "1984" hit the books, ain't no one scanning my retinas. Also, I really don't need to give the federal government a reason to conduct a background check on me, even though I have nothing to hide. Except maybe that little thing in...oh, never mind. They already have my fingerprints (I assume anyway, since I was in the service). Probably have a nice little DNA profile on me, too, for the same reason (the military loves to extract bodily fluids). Why give them an excuse to put it all together, with me footing the bill?? (They're going to charge for this ID and, as it were, head of the line privileges.)

  2. Two words: Sleeper Cells. How do you think many of the Saudi guys who hijacked planes on September 11, 2001 got away with it? Most of them blended in with no criminal records or "terrorist" flags. They'd been here for awhile. They'd been flying all over hells half acre in the U.S. for years. They knew the system. No security system is foolproof, but again as an experienced traveler, I know that there's enough variations from airport to airport to make a single solution for a terrorist to breach security protocols both impractical and dangerous. And I'm not even a security expert.
No thanks, TSA – I’ll stay in the cattle chute at the regular security checkpoint. When you institute routine body cavity searches at the metal detectors, then come talk to me, otherwise I'm not playing.

So, it's quite clear that the aviation industry in the U.S. will be changing dramatically over the next 6 or 12 months, possibly even more dramatically than in the months following September 11. The players might change. Security protocols most certainly will change.

And you can bet that amongst all the organizational chaos afflicting the industry, someone with bad intentions is watching.