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Pity the poor airlines.

That’s right – I said pity the poor airlines.

Yes, those airlines that try to bump you from flights, that keep you
sitting in the plane on a runway for an hour, that take so long getting your
bags to you, that have the long lines at the ticket counters. Those
airlines.

I’d estimate that about 75 percent of the problems we blame on airlines
are caused either by government-owned airports or by the federal Air Traffic
Controller system.

Prior to Sept. 11, the airlines kept offering cheaper and cheaper fares,
the demand for air travel kept increasing and increasing, the airlines’
inventory of planes and employees kept growing and growing, while the
airports and air traffic control system became more and more out of date.

The government-owned airports are always so far behind the curve that
there’s never enough room at the ticket counters to process passenger volume
quickly, never an efficient baggage system, never enough gates available to
handle all the planes.

And those flight delays? When they’re not caused by the weather, they
almost always are caused by a federal traffic control system that operates
with ancient computers and typical bureaucratic inefficiency.

Taking the blame

But who gets blamed for all these problems?

The airlines, of course.

Two years ago my wife and I boarded a plane at LaGuardia Airport to go to
Atlanta. The plane left the gate on time, but we got no further than the
runway. The control tower held the plane on the LaGuardia runway for four
and a half hours.

Why? Because the traffic control system was overloaded and planes were
backed up arriving at Atlanta airport.

So why didn’t the plane simply go back to the gate and let us wait inside
the airport? Because there were no available gates at the overloaded
airport.

The pilot was on the Intercom apologizing profusely for the delay as
though it were the airline’s fault. It was almost as though he thought he’d
be punished if he said anything bad about the airports or the air traffic
control system.

And the airline paid for an Atlanta hotel room for the night (because we
missed our connection to California), even though the airline wasn’t
responsible.

Making a bad situation worse

Since the sad state of air travel today is primarily the fault of
governments, the Ralph Nader types have a solution – more government.

They want a “Passenger Bill of Rights” with such intelligent provisions
as making an airline pay a passenger 200 percent of the ticket price when a
flight is more than two hours late. Presumably, that will “send a message”
to the airlines that they should make government more efficient.

Public relations

The biggest failing of the airlines themselves is probably poor training
in public relations.

Not only do their employees too often apologize for problems that aren’t
their fault, the employees don’t show empathy when it really is called for.
They apologize inappropriately in a collective way, but they too seldom
apologize in a personal way.

When you wait forever in line at the ticket counter, rarely does the
ticket agent say, “I’m sorry you had to wait so long.” When you can’t get
the seat selection you ask for, you don’t hear, “I’m sorry we can’t
accommodate you.” When your baggage is lost or late getting rerouted back to
you, no one says, “I’m sorry you’ve had to put up with this.”

An airline employee needs to learn only two simple lessons: 1) No one
likes to be inconvenienced, and 2) when inconvenienced, anyone will feel a
lot better if you just show a little sympathy. It amazes me that, in such a
“people” business, I’m not aware of any airline whose ground personnel are
noticeably well-trained in public relations. (Southwest is probably the best
I’ve seen, and the telephone reservation clerks for most airlines seem very
well-trained.)

I said 75 percent of the air-travel problems are really government
problems. Probably most of the other 25 percent would be reduced
considerably if new competitors could come into the market and pressure
existing airlines to improve their public-relations skills. But a lack of
gates at the government airports makes it virtually impossible for a new
airline to get started.

Solving the problems

It would take a separate article to explore all the possible
improvements, but two general remedies are obvious:

  1. Cities and counties should sell their airports to private companies and
    make it easier for competing airports to open within each city.

  2. The federal government should get completely out of air traffic control.
    Let the airlines operate the system, modernize it, and make it efficient.

Let’s make air travel fun again.

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