Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Misery with Air Travel

Long lines. Frequent delays.
Disrobing for security while your flight completes final boarding. Here's why your plane trip is ridden with misery.

Ticket Counter
Expensive? If anything, flying doesn't cost enough: The average domestic fare in spring 2007 was $326. That's $50 less than a decade ago, after adjusting for inflation. During the same period, fuel costs nearly tripled. To stay in business, major carriers have aped the strategies of budget operators like Southwest. Largely gone are the free meals, blankets, and pillows. The savings have been passed along as lower ticket prices — at the price of your comfort.

Security Line
September 11 changed flying forever, and would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid changed it again. The so-called liquid terror plot in the UK made it a trifecta. As a result, the list of prohibited and permitted items is mystifying. Gel shoe inserts, snow globes, or a 6-ounce bottle of spray deodorant? No way. Corkscrews, cigarette lighters, and 6.5-inch screwdrivers? No problem. Meanwhile, security delays vary drastically from airport to airport. The average wait time in Los Angeles on Monday at 8 am is just four to 11 minutes; at Atlanta's main checkpoint, it's up to 26.

A storm in a hub city like Chicago can quickly bog down the entire system. As a result, more than a quarter of US flights were stuck on the tarmac last year. In the peak summer season, that number reached almost 30 percent. A tip: If you book online (and who doesn't?), you may be able to select your flight based on its on-time performance. United's Web site, for example, displays statistics for each flight when you make reservations. The industry on-time average is 73.5 percent.

As many as 80 million bags are checked every month, yet only 7.25 out of every 1,000 travelers complain of mishandled luggage — not bad. But in 2006 it was 6.45, and 10 years ago it was 4.88. If they're not reunited with their owners, many lost bags are sent to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, where their contents are sold to the public.

Airlines fill planes by overbooking and hoping some people don't show up. But more than half a million passengers were bumped from flights in the first nine months of 2007. While many opted out for free round-trips or other perks, 52,000 were "denied boarding" involuntarily. That may not seem like a lot, but it's up nearly 20 percent from a decade ago.

Control Tower
US airports are swamped. Last year, some 64 million takeoffs and landings were managed by a mere 14,874 air traffic controllers, a quarter of whom were new hires or trainees. Many of those cannot work alone. And despite the new blood, much of the current workforce is expected to retire within a decade.

Airplane Cabin
Nearly 800 million passengers flew on US airlines in 2007, up 31 percent from 2003. But while airports have never been busier, there are actually fewer planes in operation; in 2006, US carriers operated 13 percent fewer aircraft than in 2000. So how do they accommodate everyone? Welcome to the sardine can. Airlines have boosted cabin capacity by slashing legroom — the average coach seat today provides less than 32 inches, down from 35 in years past. On top of that, planes are flying fuller: Historically, 65 to 70 percent of seats were filled; today it's nearly 80 percent. Don't expect things to improve any time soon: The FAA forecasts that we'll have 1 billion passengers in the air by 2015.

The 50-year-old radar-based flight-tracking system is responsible for many of today's problems because it limits how closely planes can fly to one another. A new GPS-based system called NextGen will broadcast precise positions between aircraft for the first time, giving pilots more control over flight tracking and letting many more flights share the same airspace safely. It's scheduled to come online by 2025 and cost as much as $22 billion. In Alaska, where a similar system is already in place for small planes, the accident rate has dropped by 40 percent. Source: wired.com

No comments: