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The Declining State of Air Travel
People are traveling more. So air travel should be easier, quicker and safer, right? It’s not.

The four TSA agents sauntered down the concourse, oblivious to the seemingly hundreds of people waiting to go through Concourse C security at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee? Hundreds of people? 

Yep. That’s how inefficient the crammed and claustrophobic security screening area was at Concourse C in Milwaukee two weeks ago. Theoretically, the four TSA employees were being called upon to help break the logjam that was endangering people from missing their flights. 

Yet they laughed and chatted their way towards security, at one point all four stopping to listen intently while one of their merry band finished what most likely was an off color joke.

It took one full hour to get through security. We were lucky; we’d arrived at the airport well ahead of time, but others missed their flights. I wonder if the TSA agents thought that was funny, too.

I’m worried this is an indicator of what might be the declining state of air travel. Around the country, getting through security is taking longer and longer. For example, in Ft. Myers, our destination, there are signs everywhere encouraging passengers to arrive at least two hours prior to a flight because of the long security lines. This has become more the rule than the exception. Soon we’ll have to sleep at the airport for a morning flight.

One would think that the solution would be more TSA agents and a bigger security area. But that doesn’t appear to be in anyone’s radar, largely due to budget cuts by our esteemed members of Congress. Thanks, guys and gals.

And not only does it take longer, it’s more expensive. We all know that fares have gone up, especially in Milwaukee, due to the lack of competition as well as the price of fuel. Worse, the airlines are nickel-diming us like there is no tomorrow.

On AirTran, you have to pay for the privilege of actually reserving a seat. Apparently buying a ticket isn’t enough. And not only that, if we wanted "extra leg room" we had to pay extra, and even more if we wanted an exit row.

At the gate, AirTran offered to charge us $10 apiece for the privilege of boarding early. Even Southwest, who is rumored to give the traveler more of a break than other airlines, made the same offer when we recently made a reservation. Let me get this straight: For a whopping $20, we could have the privilege of boarding before the other apparent peons, ostensibly so we could sit in uncomfortable seats even longer. 

Next we’ll be paying to use the lavatory. 

It seems that, in the midst of all the increased costs and budget cuts, there are simply fewer people available to manage air travel. This was evident on our return from Ft. Myers. AirTran finally had to succumb to the fact that, despite the fact that they had a plane and a full load of passengers, they had no pilots to fly it back to Milwaukee. After continuing to announce increasingly lengthy delays, they cancelled the flight. Not having any pilots cost the airline a bundle, specifically a free ticket for each passenger who was supposed to get home that night. Thanks, but that’s not good management no matter how you look at it.

Milwaukee, as I opined in this space in December, has missed a huge opportunity to replace Midwest Airlines and rather has closed a Concourse. This sure isn’t going in the right direction.

And then there are the private airports. Joe Taschler wrote a compelling article in the March 24th Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the closing control towers at many of the "commuter" airports in Wisconsin, offering that “budget cuts force the Federal Aviation Administration to carve chunks out of the nation's air traffic control system.”

The biggest impact will be felt in these smaller, "commuter" airports where many of the current control towers will be closed, forcing pilots to do their own air traffic control. Yikes. Eight towers in all will close in Wisconsin, including the fairly heavily used Timmerman in Milwaukee and Waukesha County Airport (the former Crites Field). 

So what does the future hold? It’s not very bright, especially if you are in Milwaukee. We have an empty concourse, long lines at security and far fewer destinations to reach directly than we did before.

Nationally, it doesn’t look much better. Fares are skyrocketing because with all the mergers, there are fewer airlines and less competition. And then there’s the TSA.

As we become more and more mobile as a society, with family and friends spread out all over the country, air travel should be relied upon more heavily and become safer and more efficient. But if things keep going as they are, we’ll wind up back in the 1950s, where everyone drove to distant places and getting on a plane was a rarity.

Do we really want that to happen?


Follow me on Twitter: @jpalmer7890

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Jay_Warner Posted: 4/16/2013 2:55:23 PM
 1   0    

I just flew to Lima and Cusco, Peru and back to O'Hare. TSA treatment was faster than immigration officials'. It was nice to hear the engines and entire system humming (more or less quietly), smoothly. Sputters and hesitations can really disrupt your time in the air. Footroom was abonimable. Most flights had a healthy, profitable loading factor (and less wiggle room for legs). I don't like to see pilots to smaller airports left to do their own air traffic control, but if Congress sets itself up to do nothing, then does it, maybe we should tell Congress that sequestering is keeping heavily used airports going at the expense of smaller ones. If hedging on fuel contracts keeps fuel costs down only so long, shouldn't we be grateful for the temporary reprieve, not complain about its end? Maybe we need high speed rail for shorter runs, and leave the airlines to the longer hauls. One more way to reduce the demand (and thus, price) for that fuel. And the train has plenty of room to stretch out, walk around, and avoid thrombosis.
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