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Authors: William J. McGee

Attention All Passengers

BOOK: Attention All Passengers
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Attention All Passengers

The Airlines' Dangerous Descent—

and How to Reclaim Our Skies

William J. McGee


For Nick


Author's Note

The author does not receive any income from airlines or other travel suppliers and does not invest or own shares in any travel companies. He also does not collect or redeem airline frequent flyer mileage or travel loyalty points. Although he worked for three U.S. airlines between 1985 and 1992, all three were financially liquidated and he receives no pension or benefits. Furthermore, he did not accept any compensatory flights or other free services, accommodations, or gifts from airlines or other travel suppliers while researching this book. All quotes in the book that are not cited with an endnote originated in a series of interviews conducted by the author between January and August 2011.


Flying Sucks

used to love the airlines. I loved everything about flying. In fact, aviation seems to run in my blood. I have relatives who have piloted airplanes, fixed airplanes, and ridden airplanes into combat, and I have quite a few siblings and cousins who have toiled for airlines over the years. Way back in June 1927 my grandfather Bill McMullen snuck my mother out of school and escorted her onto a trolley car so they could travel from Queens into Manhattan. She was six years old and had spent most of the winter in a sanitarium fighting for her life against diphtheria, so my guess is that he left his other kids behind so he could remind her just how sweet life can be. He hoisted his little girl onto his shoulders as she watched Colonel Charles Lindbergh, the world's most famous pilot, pass by in a ticker-tape parade. They were celebrating the Lone Eagle's triumphant return from Paris, a city my grandfather—and namesake—had visited just a few years earlier during World War I with the American Expeditionary Forces.

It's a year worth considering. The American Century was unfolding the way Broadway unfolded before Lucky Lindy during that parade. The possibilities must have seemed limitless: America was moving faster, further, higher. Despite the ominous stock bubble and the nascent march of fascism, the country clearly had faith in its workforce, in its technology, and in itself. It's no coincidence that 1927 was also when a blue-blood Yalie and former U.S. Navy pilot named Juan Trippe founded what would become the world's all-time greatest airline, Pan Am.

More than six decades later, in 1991, I was the operations system control manager on duty when the final Pan Am Shuttle flight rolled up to the gate at LaGuardia Airport in New York. In 1985 I had taken what I thought would be a summer job in the airline industry, which quickly led to working for four different carriers, and in many ways, it's as if I never left. After twenty-seven years, I'm still immersed in the business, though now I write and advocate about it rather than work in it. As the old-timers say, I've got Jet A-1 fuel coursing through my veins.

I really did love the business. I loved airplanes. I worked in the airlines, went flying on my days off, served in the Air Force Auxiliary, vacationed at air shows, and even stayed up nights writing about AirFair, my own fictional air carrier. As Ed Acker, the former CEO of Air Florida and Pan Am, aptly noted, “Once you get hooked on the airline business, it's worse than dope.” Amen.

And so, like millions of other Americans, it pains me to see what's happened to what was at one time the exhilarating experience of boarding a flight. Today, commercial flying sucks. And everyone knows it.

The first time I traveled to an airport I was five years old. Most of my very large family piled into our 1965 Mercury Colony Park station wagon and my brother and I had to be extra careful crawling over the tailgate to settle into the rear-facing third seat. That was because we were wearing dark suits, white shirts, and ties. My sisters were wearing dresses and shiny shoes. We were en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
And we weren't even flying!
It was 1967 and my oldest brother was home from Fort Gordon, in Georgia, for Thanksgiving leave. Think about that. We were just visiting an airport, one of dozens of families waiting in the arrivals hall as a planeload of shaved GIs filed through with duffel bags slung over their shoulders. And we were dressed as if it were Easter Sunday.

I consider that every time I'm crammed in next to some guy who crosses his bare legs against my tray table as I count the curly little hairs on the knuckle of his big toe and munch on the Blueberry Pomegranate Trail Mix Crunch that is just four dollars on US Airways. In researching this book, I spoke to a lot of veteran travelers who whined about the good old days romanticized on TV in
Mad Men
Pan Am
—you know, when flyers didn't dress in shorts and tank tops and flip-flops, employ stage voices to speak on cell phones in crowded jet bridges, hit old ladies in the noggin cramming overstuffed carry-ons into overhead bins, or engage in fisticuffs with flight attendants. In other words, they were civilized.

Let's be clear. We asked for democracy, for the eradication of that dated term
jet set
, for air travel to become accessible to the masses, for flying to become a God-given constitutional right like bearing arms or blogging in all uppercase letters with no punctuation. We asked for what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls “freedom of movement.” And the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act gave us just that. It took the government out of the airline scheduling business and empowered the free market to determine where and how often carriers would fly, and how much they would charge passengers. So for some the perception is that behavior that used to be confined to other locations has become commonplace at thirty-five thousand feet.

But it doesn't have to be this way. The masses are also allowed into shopping malls and restaurants, theaters and arenas, schools and offices, parks and libraries and houses of worship. Somehow those venues don't erupt into Argentinean
riots. One would think the terms
subway rage
bus rage
would have entered the lexicon before
air rage
did. Today, riding Amtrak offers a better customer experience than flying on an airline. Heck, riding Greyhound offers a better customer experience. No, flying sucks because the airlines have rapidly deteriorated, due to a handful of greedy executives who have sucked the civility out of our own publicly funded airports and airways, and lax government regulators who have allowed customer service, security, and even safety to decline—all in the name of worshipping the free market, which of course is anything but free for customers. Carriers refuse to put money into improving their operations, and we're partly to blame for allowing it all to unravel in such a disheartening way.

Air travel has become a commodity, and the airlines themselves an oligopoly that has carved up hub airports the way cable television providers have carved up zip codes. Consequently airline execs do not care about customers in the way a service industry should. Contacting an airline has become akin to calling your cable company when there's an outage—good luck with that. In fact, the chief executive of the Irish low-cost airline Ryanair was quoted a few years back as saying: “Air transport is just a glorified bus operation.” These days, many passengers might not have a problem with that view. The problem is that it's a
poorly run
bus operation.

Over nearly three decades, I've been given a unique micro and macro view of the airline experience. I began my career by loading bags out on the tarmac and then moved into ground operations and flight operations management for third-tier players—Overseas National Airways, Ogden Allied, Tower Air. Then I worked for Pan Am. Eventually, I left aviation and began writing about the big picture—the CEOs, bankruptcies, mergers, start-ups, shutdowns, strikes, lawsuits, accidents, and the terrorism. And in recent years as the aviation consultant to nonprofit Consumers Union, I've become a passenger advocate, testifying before Congress and speaking out on customer service and safety. In May 2010, Secretary of Transportation Raymond LaHood selected me as the consumer advocate on the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, and I spent seven months debating these customer service and safety issues with airline executives and government regulators.

When my service on the FAAC ended, I decided to take a fresh look and embark on a journey of discovery about an industry I thought I knew. This book chronicles that journey, which took me from reservations centers in India to the lost luggage center in Alabama, from outsourced maintenance hangars to DOT headquarters, from the Boeing assembly line in Seattle to the aircraft boneyard in the California desert. My goal was to probe and inquire and investigate, all in the name of explaining this tremendously oversized and complex spectacle to average Americans. Most passengers have no idea how much has changed so quickly, and how little is transparent about the airline industry.

The term
means many things to many people, but all can agree an airline traditionally contains three components: it owns airplanes, fixes airplanes, and flies airplanes. Today, most major carriers are distancing themselves from all three pursuits. Banks and leasing firms own most of the aircraft. And a radical sea change has occurred in airline maintenance. Nearly all U.S. carriers—with the lone exception of American Airlines—have elected to farm out their maintenance and repairs, both inside and outside the United States, thereby preventing the Federal Aviation Administration from providing adequate oversight. And today many airlines are even outsourcing flying itself, by engaging in marketing deals that allow carriers to label other airlines' flights as their own, especially on regional airplanes.

The first airline ticket was sold in 1914, and deregulation took effect nearly thirty-four years ago, but many of the most startling changes in the industry's history have quietly occurred within the last decade. Consider these facts:

• U.S. airlines generated $21.5 billion in 2010 from “ancillary” fees for services such as checking baggage.

• On any given day, there are six billion airfares loaded into computer reservations systems, fueling arcane and often nonsensical pricing mechanisms.

• Now 53 percent of all airline flight departures are operated by the major carriers' regional partners, such as Comair, Colgan, and Chautauqua.

• More than half of all frequent flyer mileage is now earned without ever boarding an airplane.

• Since 1978, 189 domestic airlines have filed for bankruptcy.

• The heads of the ten largest airlines in the United States earned $38,907,562 in salary and bonuses in 2010.

• About 71 percent of all U.S. airline heavy maintenance is now outsourced, in many cases to developing nations.

• It costs $700 million annually for air marshals to protect only 2 percent of U.S. flights.

• The aviation industry is responsible for 2–5 percent of climate change, and the industry's CO
output will grow 3–4 percent annually.

My friend Kevin Mitchell, who lobbies for passenger rights through the Business Travel Coalition, says airlines are engaged “in a mad race to the bottom on costs”—and that race is playing itself out through service, security, and safety. Mitchell also says, “The airlines are a proxy for American decline.” I'm thoroughly convinced of that as well.

Ostensibly this book is about airlines, but in writing it, I've come to see that it's about much more—that the issues it addresses speak to all of twenty-first-century America. The airline story has become America's story: while we're entertained with bread and circuses, good jobs are downsized, outsourced, and offshored, the disconnect grows between service companies and their customers, Corporate America purchases government influence wholesale, federal regulators refuse to properly oversee our safety and security, and the financial chasm widens between senior executive “haves” and average worker “have-nots.”

Nicole Piasecki, vice president for Boeing and a fellow member of the FAAC, speaks passionately about globalism and her vision for a unified world economy. I respect her immensely and understand these arguments, and I strive to stay engaged in a world that is rapidly shrinking. But I remain an American. This is where I live, work, write, raise my son, vote, and pay taxes. I adhere to American laws, support an American infrastructure, and expect my elected officials to prioritize national interests above foreign interests. For me, the bell tolls much more strongly in Minneapolis and Miami than in Beijing and San Salvador. And when Airbus finally buys up Boeing and Seattle goes the way of Detroit, are we supposed to pretend it won't be a bad thing for America because a handful of investors made out okay? Or do we just look forward to the next McDonald's hiring day and the golden fifty thousand openings that need filling?

That mad race to the bottom is already having ill effects. Right now the U.S. airline industry has a stellar safety record—but it needs to be taken in context. There are troubling warning signs—incidents and accidents that indicate standards are slipping. As Mitchell notes, on the day before the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010, there had been a 100 percent safety record on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, but now we know how a lack of government oversight can facilitate tragedy. Similarly, the major financial companies responsible for the 2008 Wall Street meltdown were enjoying financial ratings of AA or better at the time of their collapses and/or government bailouts. Indeed, airline safety is poised to be the next Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, Enron fiasco, or Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac calamity. Only this time we're all aware of it, with plenty of advance warning.

Just as war produces collateral damage, so too does capitalism. Economists refer to airlines “exiting the market” and jobs “going away.” They're employing Orwellian tactics to soften the blows, but the airline industry battlefield has been littered with real pain. We've had no meaningful national discussion about the bankruptcies and jobs and security and safety and cutting corners—in more than thirty years. The time has come. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the Democratic National Convention in 1936, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

Yet when we suggest that U.S. airplanes be fixed in the United States or workers be given a living wage or passengers be treated with respect or carbon footprints be curtailed, we're condescendingly told we don't understand the complexities, the Global Economy, the way the world works. But we
understand. As George Bernard Shaw stated, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

BOOK: Attention All Passengers
2.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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