Friday, September 9, 2011

Turning Aviation Upside Down - The Legacy of September 11th

My sons, Antonio, Sam and Joseph in 2001
Through the window of the room my three sons shared in 2001, they could lie in bed and watch airplanes on approach to New York City's many airports. A few days after September 11, my youngest son, Joseph, then seven, asked me to close the blind. He was worried that the planes would fly through the window. 

It saddened me that airplanes would become a source of fear to my children but as far as aviation is concerned this is the legacy of September 11.

A list of all the ways that air travel has changed since that day ten years ago is lengthy but the rise in the price of oil and the ramping up of air security were the most potent motivators of change. 

Airlines that could not meet the challenges failed while others merged to survive. Routes, schedules and on-board offerings were cut. Today air travelers complain
  • Planes are crowded
  • Amenities are eliminated 
  • Security is time-consuming and arbitrary
I can argue both sides of all these changes. Certainly they are responsible for the ubiquitous "hassle factor"  of flying in the 21st century, yet one can't dispute the results. Airlines are profitable again, more people fly to more places around the globe and all the while the price of air travel has remained more or less the same for decades. That's right, I said decades

According to Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, "In 1978, an average 3,000 mile round-trip domestic ticket cost about $255. In 2009, adjusting for inflation, that same ticket should have cost about $838," she wrote to me in an email. Instead, "that ticket cost about $362, a 57 percent DECLINE in real terms."

Well the decline in the airport and airplane experience is obvious. Just the same Victoria has a valid point. 

Security? Well, bitch and moan all you want - you'll do it anyway - but we've not had a successful  attack on an airline in America since 9-11.  That's not just luck because from Richard Reid's shoes to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's shorts to the 2006 plot to blow up multiple airliners, Lord knows, there have been attempts.

But just as certainly, the fun is gone from air travel and for most people only the fear and frustration remain.   

In this month's column for Trains magazine, Don Phillips the retired aviation correspondent for the Washington Post opines that public fascination with "big things that move" is to be expected, because trains and planes are  "the soul of drama." 

He's right. When I was a child, my dad used to drive my siblings and me to Miami International Airport where we would sit on lawn chairs at the edge of the runway and watch the planes take off and land. This was entertaining for hours and free for the taking.  Who could imagine  the "drama" of aviation would turn so ominous? 

When the terrorists boarded those airliners in Boston and Washington, DC they hijacked more than those four planes. They hijacked aviation itself and took it to a place from which there is no return.


Patrick Smith said...

Air travel has changed much since September, 2001, that we can all agree upon.

But looking back, and excepting the dystopian nightmare of the TSA, which is a subject for another time, I am uncertain how much of an effect the attacks themselves had.

The airline industry was poised for dramatic change already. The airlines were creaking and groaning under serious financial stress; the low-cost sector, anchored by Southwest and a feisty New York upstart called JetBlue, had the legacy majors back on their heels; the regional airline sector was expanding rapidly.

The attacks of 9/11 were a powerful catalyst that thrust the industry into a downcycle the likes of which it had never seen, bankrupting four major carriers and forcing numerous others into liquidation along the way. But it can easily be argued that these changes were coming anyway. They merely came faster.

A decade later, here we are. The US domestic market is all but dominated by LCCs and the majors' regional affililates, the latter now accounting for an astonishing fifty percent of all domestic flights.

There's supposed to be a moral here. The industry is supposed to have learned something. It has certainly reinvented itself, but have the biggest players really worked out a plan for long-term survival? Are they any less vulnerable to the calamitous boom/bust cycles of years past? Have the variables of pricing and capacity been rationally balanced?

I'm not so sure.

And in the meantime, what we've got, mostly, is a downmarket transportation system rife with hassle, delays, and poor service, staffed by workers who've seen their wages and benefits gutted.

Sure flying is cheap, and sure it's remarkably safe. On the one hand we can hardly ask for more. But is the system healthy? Will it weather the * next * 9/11, the next fuel crisis, the next recession? And is it the system we deserve?

Anonymous said...

I think the change started when deregulation was adopted in America. In the excerpts below from a human factors in aviation accidents study book published in 1991 in London, England, it is quite clear what I am suggesting.

"Deregulation in America has increased the competition between airlines and enables all sorts of companies to start operating. The inflation rate is rising and there is a relation between a carrier’s financial position and its safety record. Two-man crews, twin-engine ocean flying and fatigue on the long range B747/200 three- crew and the two-crew and 747/400 are problems related to economics and still unresolved.

Where there is deregulation, governments have either completely removed or considerably weakened a number of safeguards that used to protect the safety standards of civil aviation. And managements have taken advantage of that weakness.

Big companies are merging and creating monopolies.Competition has become the name of the game, but instead of providing better service this has resulted in greater concentration of the market in fewer hands.

In America, due to unrestricted mergers and takeovers, aviation has become an unregulated oligopoly (eight airlines control 84% of the traffic), within which the cost-cutting and over-scheduling which Senator Roth referred to are increasing.

Problems with safety multiply as finances dominate operations. In October 1985, the annual meeting of the Flight Safety Foundation reflected a pessimistic view of the effect of deregulation on flight safety. Its President spoke of "sharp economic competition which cannot enhance safety"' and went on to say that staffing changes resulting from economic reorganization could "provide opportunity for operational error".

Deregulation, according to ALPA, allows anyone to start an airline and operate anywhere in the US at whatever fare he likes. In the ten years before US airline deregulation, there were twenty two fatal accidents. In the ten years after, there were nearly double that number, though the number of take-offs had not doubled.

Economists, accountants and management pressure sometimes can cause operators to economize, sometimes unsuccessfully. Safety and economy are opposing sides of the same coin. Balancing them is very difficult, particularly as the general public don't understand that this is so.

Cut-throat competition reducing employee costs, and aircrew free-wheeling from one to another, are all now causing great concern to organizations like the ALPA. Cost-cutting in fuel, practices to prolong engine life, improper checking of pilots by unqualified staff, corner-cutting on maintenance, the installation of extra seats to make a more commercially profitable load, the sealing of escape hatches--the list of malpractices in some airlines is formidable and growing. It is within this error-laden environment that the pilot operates.

As we have seen, airlines are forced to survive in a cut-throat environment. Passengers, encouraged by newspapers and television, demand lower and lower fares. Airlines employees who suggest a cheaper way of carrying out an essential task can be assured of a good reception. Indeed many employers give awards to those who do, and the search for cost-cutting is continuous.