Inside the numbers: Flying the friendly skies

Posted: Nov 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Last summer, our InsiderAdvantage national survey asked Americans if they intended to travel more or less than they did the prior summer. The answer was more, but not by a significantly wide margin.

 While airport travel in particular has rebounded since 9/11, consider the misery that awaits the business traveler, upon whose back the economic might of air travel rests.

 Here's a first-hand account of a flight I took this past Monday morning out of Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, arguably the world's busiest.

 My flight, scheduled to depart at 8:50 a.m. on Delta Air Lines, was delayed even before I reached the airport. I left my home hours ahead of time, prepared for the now world famous "Monday morning crunch" at Hartsfield. After checking in using the airline's new kiosk machines (which, I must admit, worked well and have clearly cut down on waits and lines to talk to ticket agents), I proceeded to the security check lines.

 What I witnessed was nothing less than staggering.

 There were lines in virtually every direction, stretched out past ticket counters, through hallways and snaking around shopping atriums, looping, dividing, encircling . . . The chaos required passengers to funnel their way through the makeshift lines with little or no directions.

 Meanwhile, the airline I was flying, the struggling Delta, obviously lacked the needed personnel to direct or handle its passengers who, finally, after hours spent waiting in line, boarded the delayed aircraft. Once on board the plane, there was no sign of a flight attendant. Passengers, seemingly all carrying huge pieces of baggage, battled for precious storage space. Even as I began to pen this column, I felt the heavy "thud" of a dropped piece of luggage on my head.

 Fortunately for me, I can be "hardheaded."

 After all of the important issues brought up in the recent presidential battle, why focus on the issue of a bad day at the airport?

 Because our nation's economy depends on the strength of air travel and our system of air transportation, which must be present to support the serious work of business travelers. Unfortunately, it is the business traveler who must pay the highest price and most frequently endure this virtual "hell" in the skies.

 The problems for airlines and airports are myriad. High fuel costs, labor issues and pricing pressure from cut rate competitors combine with security issues to create a vicious cycle. Air travel was starting to unravel long before 9/11 because of the fact that price competition (often appearing to be predatory) led to hordes of low-priced passengers, turning airports into zoos and flights into unbearable cattle cars.

 The fact is that air travel, as noted, remains critical for business travel. But with prices so low, everyone seems to think that hopping on a plane for even the most nebulous of reasons is a good idea.

 It isn't.

 If everyone flying on a plane pulled his or her equal weight in fares, the airlines would be making money and fewer frequent freeloaders would be clogging the system. Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funds to beef up security, so that more people flying for virtually nothing can simply make those lines longer and force airlines out of business?

 Sound elitist? Perhaps. But in the post-9/11 world of transportation, travel has become so horrendous that it's time for us to truly look at what made air travel in the pre-Jimmy Carter era of deregulation actually work.

 Since so many appear to be completely opposed to any regulation of anything (that is, except our own personal lives, what we wear, what we say . . . you get my drift), the best solution I can think of is for the airlines to boldly go where they went before.

 Airlines should price tickets based on the business acumen which worked so well in earlier decades. Each ticket should be set to cover the costs of operations and be marked up for a profit; after all, these airlines are allegedly for profit. The endless number of tank-topped, flip-flop-wearing passengers riding on these seemingly flu- and bacteria-bearing flying tubes, need to return to flying only when necessary. Otherwise, they should drive a car, ride a bus or take up the habit of reading newspapers and books, rather than seeking $25 airfares to entertain themselves.