WASHINGTON — Rising jet fuel prices are being cited by airlines as the reason for cancelling service to smaller U.S. cities, but an increasingly broken air travel system is as much to blame, according to a new book by a former high-level Federal Aviation Administration official.
"When it comes to air travel today, everyone has a horror story," writes George Donohue, in the understated opening line of his new book, "Terminal Chaos."
An associate administrator for research and acquisition at the FAA from 1994 to 1998, Donohue offers a detailed explanation of both the causes of and solutions to an aviation system in crisis. Today's mess of delays, cancellations and airport chaos are the product of more than two decades of bad decisions, he said.
In an interview, Donohue argued that today's rising fuel prices are providing political cover for legacy airlines like American, United and Delta to retool and go after their smaller, more profitable competitors like Southwest Airlines. Part of this retooling is halting less profitable service to smaller airports like Ft. Lauderdale, Fl., Chattanooga,Tenn., New Haven, Ct. and Hagerstown, Md.
"I think the failure to fix the system is going to lead the legacy air carriers to chase after the low-cost business model and they will go only for the business flyers and the big markets. Low cost leisure air travel (for passengers) has come and gone," Donohue said.
Airlines are reducing their unionized workforces, cramming passengers onto smaller planes and reducing the number of seats available. That will lead to more passengers on fewer flights, for which airlines can charge higher ticket prices. And although there will be fewer airports served, there will also be more traffic on the larger, already congested airfields.
"Our policies have set the system up to not be able to accommodate a large network of inter-city transportation, and we're seeing it with mergers of airlines," said Donohue. "I don't think this is a temporary economic-downturn issue. I think it goes to the heart of it — that our air transportation policy is broken."
"Terminal Chaos" details the ways in which Donohue and co-author Russell Shaver III believe the air travel system is broken. This includes how the FAA and airlines work collaboratively to make optimistic assumptions about weather that result in routine over-scheduling of flights, followed by a domino effect of departure delays and flight cancellations.
There are numerous unsettling surprises for regular flyers in the book, including the fact that very little of aviation communications involves digital data transfers like those used by cell phones and the Internet.
Many of Donohue's views are shared by Mary Schiavo, who was the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general from 1990 to 1996.
"The system is very, very broken. And unfortunately the problem with the broken system starts at the top," said Schiavo, now an attorney with the law firm Motley Rice in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Following the deadly May 1996 ValuJet crash in Miami, the position of FAA administrator was made into a post with a five-year term in an effort to depoliticize it. But Schiavo said it's evolved into a revolving door from government to industry lobbying.
The last FAA administrator, Marion Blakely, quit last year in order to head the Aerospace Industries Association, an aviation trade group. The agency has been run since last October by an acting administrator, Robert Sturgell.
"They're devoted to swinging into government and lining up to be a lobbyist. I don't know if we can even begin fixing the system without fixing the FAA," said Schiavo. "You need to hire someone who, at the end of the job, is ready for retirement and not looking for the next post. You make tough decisions in Washington and you make the industry unhappy."
Schiavo agreed with Donohue on several safety issues raised in "Terminal Chaos," most notably that the FAA resists requiring airlines to address the biggest survival risk for flying passengers. Pilots are required to have smoke hoods in the cockpit that they place over their heads if there's an electrical fire. While smoke on board is the most frequent survivable accident on airlines, there's no such provision of smoke hoods for passengers.
"For me personally, you are more likely to die from smoke, from flames from an explosion," said Schiavo, who carries her own smoke hood when she takes commercial flights. The protective hoods are now standard for passengers on many corporate jets.
Donohue argues in "Terminal Chaos" that those iPods, cell phones and laptops you are ordered to turn off during takeoffs and landings actually don't interfere with airline navigation systems.
"The FAA has never been able to confirm these fears, thus private pilots routinely use their computers close to navigation equipment without any problem," he writes in a chapter entitled "Passengers Who Act Like Sheep Will Be Treated Like Sheep."
"The federal government cannot compete with the private sector for competent engineers. The government can't compete with Nextel and AT&T and Verizon and Sprint for the qualified engineers to do modern information technology," said Donohue, who advocates having the private sector play a greater role in modernizing aviation communications. "We're working with a system that is adequate for the 1950s."
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