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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

10 Ways to Make Flying Great Again

Cities Infrastructure & Transportation

America’s airlines are suffering from the same problem plaguing Gotham’s mass-transit system — 36,000 feet up in the air, just as three stories underground, sheer numbers of people are overwhelming our travel systems, making everyone miserable. Airlines have encouraged people to fly, and so they do: Last year, 821.8 million people took a flight on a US-flagged airline, a full quarter higher than the number of people who flew in the year 2000. People are flying partly because it’s cheaper: In 2016, the average domestic fare was $347, down from $472 back then (in today’s dollars).

On lots of statistical measures, airlines have gotten better at managing all this traffic. But when they screw up, they screw with more people’s lives, just because of the huge numbers involved.

“There are some things... that government, airlines and passengers can do to improve the flying experience.”

Last year, for example, airlines bumped six people for every 100,000 passengers, down from 10 in the year 2000. But because there are so many more passengers, these bumpings annoyed 66,600 people, up from 49,300 seventeen years ago.

You can bet those extra 17,300 stranded people didn’t cheer themselves up with statistics as they stayed at the airport Residence Inn trying to scrounge up some food.

It’s tempting to suggest radical overhauls of the airline industry. Re-regulate airlines? They’re hardly deregulated as it is; they don’t compete on safety issues like how many hours pilots can fly (thank goodness), and the bigger carriers dominate major airport terminals and gates as well as routes where there isn’t much demand for air travel. There just aren’t that many people who want to travel on a given day at a given time from, say, New York to Roanoke, and thus little incentive for an upstart to challenge the big carriers.

Introduce more competition? The smaller airlines perform worse: ExpressJet, Frontier, Virgin America, and SkyWest had the worst cancellation and on-time rates last year, and Spirit and JetBlue are right down there with them this year.

There are some things, though, that government, airlines and passengers can do to improve the flying experience.

Government should...

Modernize air-traffic control. Only 81.4 percent of flights are on time. Yes, that’s better than the 76.2 percent recorded in 2000. But to keep planes “on time,” airlines often build a half-hour or more of wiggle room into their flight schedules.

Most of the airlines want to spin the Federal Aviation Administration’s air-traffic control system into a new nonprofit company they would own together, to speed up flight-routing technology that uses GPS instead of radar. A GPS system would allow airlines to fly planes more closely together and fly routes more directly, saving time (and fuel). And it’s not a giveaway to the airlines: They would pay for the private air-traffic-control system, just as they pay (indirectly, through gas and other taxes) for the government-run system now.

President Trump now supports this idea, proposing it in his budget for next year. But congressmen and women from both parties are against it. They are worried that big airlines would shaft smaller rural airports in a market-based system that favors wealthier people from wealthier areas. But a compromise isn’t impossible: Congress could transfer responsibility for air-traffic control to a nonprofit company legally committed to maintaining rural service, letting the airlines avoid a lot of the federal bureaucracy, such as contractor-procurement rules, required to build anything.

Make it easier to get to the airport. Boston has seen the benefits of investing in infrastructure: The Big Dig, finished a decade ago, made it much easier to get to Logan Airport by car. That was a key factor in General Electric deciding to move its headquarters there from Connecticut earlier this year.

But public transportation to the nation’s airports (including Logan) is terrible. A big part of Trump’s infrastructure plan should be helping cities build business-class transportation from their business districts to their major airports to alleviate traffic and missed flights. (And, no, it doesn’t count as good transit if you have to take three separate trains or take a train to a bus.)

Build better high-speed rail. ​Railways that can take people 500 miles in just over two hours would cut thousands of short-haul flights, leaving more space at crowded airports for more — and more lucrative — transcontinental and trans-ocean flights.

Fix airport security. Airport security has gotten better since the first year after 9/11, yes. TSA agents, who must spend their days going through people’s dirty underwear looking for sharp objects, get a bad rap. Most of them are courteous, respectful and — sorry to disappoint you — not all that interested in groping grandma.

But better intelligence and biometrics — plus more bomb-sniffing and drug-sniffing dogs — should mean that in the next decade, most people and their belongings don’t need to be searched at all. After 100 flights to London, I am highly unlikely to blow up the plane on my 101st journey. Governments and airlines should cooperate in isolating suspicious people — or people with little to no travel history — and save the searches for them.

Passengers should...

Stop bringing all of your earthly belongings with you. Your wheelie bag is not your friend. It doesn’t make you look cool and important. It does allow you to bring way more than you can carry, and thus way more than you can realistically stow on an airplane. If you’re going away for less than a week, you should be able to carry what you need in a large shoulder bag. No, you don’t need to bring that third pair of shoes, that dress you haven’t worn in nine years and that book you’ve been meaning to read since eighth grade. Truly important people don’t carry anything with them.

Stop it with the sound-emitting devices.Your fellow passengers like your kids — really. What they don’t like is you — when you give your toddlers a tablet computer which they then use to entertain themselves by watching the Minions cross-country at top volume. Amplified sound is different from talking; it cuts through ambient noise and is almost impossible to ignore. If your kid is too young for headphones, she is too young to watch a portable TV for hours on end. Give her an adult coloring book.

Remember that you get what you pay for. Unhappy with your legroom? Then pay up for the extra-space seat. That message helps the airline to understand that some customers are able and willing to pay a little bit more for more value.

Finally, be a little grateful when you land. No US airliner has had a fatal crash since 2009 — nearly a decade ago, when 50 people were killed on a Continental (now United) flight near Buffalo.

But airliners have had some near misses: Delta Flight 1086 from Atlanta to La Guardia, with 132 people on board, nearly crashed two years ago. This year, United flew a jet 23 times without making the required safety inspections, incurring a half-million-dollar federal fine.

Airline travel is not inherently safe. It is only safe because both government and airline officials realize how dangerous it is.

Anytime you fly, you trust both the government and the airline officials — the same people who still can’t figure out how to tell the difference between bottled water and a bomb or how to board a plane in under 40 minutes.

So it’s still a little magical that it all works — almost all of the time, but “almost” isn’t “always.” A maintenance delay — or even a sudden cancellation — is good news. It means that the airline has put safety ahead of not angering its passengers and that our imperfect system is actually working.

Airlines should...

Quit it with the checked-bag fee. Airlines raked in nearly $4.2 billion in checked-bag fees last year. Making passengers handle their own baggage appears to save money. It’s a big reason why airline employment has fallen by nearly 7 percent since 2000, even as passenger numbers have soared.

But it’s a false efficiency. The airlines are only saving money by making everyone else do all the work. Passengers must wait as their fellow travelers try to board a plane with their giant suitcases and take someone else’s overhead-bin space. And feel sorry for the flight attendants who have to strain themselves moving people’s bags around.

Long-term, the airlines should implement a radical new policy as they order new planes: Get rid of the overhead bins. You can carry on what will fit under your seat. Anything else, you check — one bag free, the second one $50. This change would save boarding time and frustration.

Be fair on refunds: Airlines should have to pay ​passengers’ real costs for changes or cancellations. Last month, my husband had to change his JetBlue flight to Chicago by one day. He paid the $100 change fee plus a $30 higher fare. Perfectly fair. On the way home, though, JetBlue abruptly cancelled our flight from Chicago back to New York.

JetBlue did so with such little notice that we — and most other passengers — were already at the airport waiting to board. The airline’s proffered compensation, after forcing us to spend an extra night in Chicago, and forcing us to go back and forth to the airport twice, and after much prodding on our part? A $150 travel voucher per person, which expires within a year.

If an airline cannot do its one job — get a person from one place to another within a reasonable time frame — it should offer a cash refund for that part of the flight and any expenses incurred during the wait, plus get the passenger where he needs to be as soon as possible (in this case, the next day).

Oddly, government regulations cover overbooked flights and delays — but do little for outright flight cancellations. If airlines don’t act proactively, the government will eventually do it for them.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post