In looking back at his stellar aviation career, legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager declared simply, "I've had a ball." Having just completed my fourth decade in the aviation industry, I would like to offer some insights that I've gleaned while shuttling from jetway to boardroom, from JFK International to Ataturk International Airports, and from peer review to peer review.
First things first: This is most definitely not your father's aviation industry. While some elements are immutable — planes fly, pilots fly them, and people on the ground run the whole complicated show — the airline industry continues to change at a phenomenally rapid pace.
Think about it. As little as ten years ago there were virtually no regional jets and only a handful of low-cost carriers; the term "legacy carriers" hadn't even been coined yet. There were no fast-traveling diseases like SARS to worry about; security no-fly lists were unheard of; fuel did not require a third mortgage to purchase; and airline food was something you perhaps ate, and certainly complained about, but not something you paid for or brought aboard yourself. Welcome to the ever-changing new "normal" that is our aviation industry.
The intent here is not to paint a bleak picture of today's industry; that's not how I see it. In fact, if you put aside the current out-of-joint fuel costs, today's aviation industry is more profitable, efficient, safe, and effective than it has ever been before. And that should be noted and applauded. Industry professionals have worked diligently to make it so. And they have been doing quite a bit more lately to keep the industry moving forward. For example, consider airport access.
Airports are increasingly accessible by mass transit. From Munich International to New York's JFK to London's Heathrow to Tokyo's Narita International Airport, passengers now have greater transit options for getting to and from airports. That is remarkable, especially when you consider that for many years it was a distant thought at best.
Unfortunately, today when people get to the airport, especially in the United States, they're going to find they are definitely not alone, and that they have plenty of time to meet other travelers.
Planes are fuller than they've ever been. According to the Air Transport Association, the average load factor for the U.S. airline industry last year rose to 77 percent. Load factors haven't been that high since World War II placed its massive demands on aviation.
Today, some major airlines are running load factors in the 80–85 percent range. So there are more people on planes than ever before, even though airlines are flying 4 percent fewer flights. Layer security requirements on top of that passenger load, however, and it all adds up to congestion.
Now, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has worked diligently to shore up aviation security. But the hard facts of sheer volume still mean considerable delays for passengers at American airports. People have returned to the skies in droves, but to get to the skies, they must all pass through magnetometers first. And that takes time, no matter how you do it. Of course, TSA and airlines are doing everything they can to expedite the process while maintaining a secure environment.
Other Industry Innovations
To that end, we're seeing innovative approaches to every aspect of the process, from ticketing to boarding to security.
To speed boarding, airlines are trying virtually everything they can think of, including random boarding, back-to-front seating, window seating first, and even dual and triple loading bridges. Triple bridges are already in place internationally to handle the Airbus A380 when it starts commercial service. The one drawback that the Canadian airports have seen with the advent of dual bridges is that, instead of passenger boarding being the holdup, the loading of hold baggage has become the pacing item in aircraft turn times.