Stating the Obvious

Ground Clutter - Stating the Obvious

By Ralph Hood, Columnist

January/February 2001

Well, folks, Bill Clinton has announced the solution to the air traffic problem. Yep, and I am an astronaut, Bush has a mandate, and Jesse Jackson is gonna take a vow of silence. I'm a little sketchy on the details myself, but Dick Branick - an accomplished pilot and a rocket engineer - tells me the miracle cure involves a new bureaucracy and a watchdog committee. As Dick explains it, the plan doesn't say anything at all about new airports. Humph...

There is, of course, a problem. To paraphrase Churchill, when it comes to airline travel never have so many been so mad at so few. You've seen the reports everywhere from USA Today to 60 Minutes. Delays and canceled flights seem more normal than not. Only two of my last ten airline legs have been on the flights I bought tickets for, and that almost seems normal.
But nobody can agree on the problem, much less solve it. One group says it is the airlines' fault for scheduling umpteen flights at the same airport at the same time. Others say it's too few airports and the failure of ATC to improve with the times.
It reminds me of the old question, what do you do when you find yourself at the bottom of a hole? First, you quit digging. The first step for the airline problem seems just as obvious. We should start peak-period pricing ASAP, for all of the reasons stated so well by David Plavin in the last issue of Airport Business. As the young folks say, that is a big "Well, duhhhÉ!"
But, you wouldn't believe the stink that very idea brings up. General aviation folks - from the J-3 owner to the G-V pilot - worry that they might be discriminated against. Regional airlines fear likewise. Airports are hesitant to start it, because they fear litigation.
Proponents of peak-period pricing say it could push airlines to underutilized airports, and that passengers will fly from those airports if it will save them money. Others say they won't. Let's kill that argument right now. It does work; Southwest proved it years ago when it chose Midway over O'Hare, Love over DFW, BWI over Dulles, Ft. Lauderdale over Miami, and Providence over Boston. PAX flock to those airports in droves. I'm one of them.
Even that can scare general aviation. If the airlines increase ops at airports that are currently genav airports, where will genav go? We are losing, not gaining, smaller airports, and genav has already been pushed from big-boy airports.(I can remember operating a Cessna Skyhawk in and out of Atlanta's Hartsfield back in the '70s. Surely wouldn't want to do that today.)
But the current system can't continue. An unbelievable number of people at the Atlanta airport (I've heard as high as 90 percent) are there just to change planes. They are neither starting nor ending their trip in Atlanta; they're just there for the convenience of the airlines' much beloved hub and spoke system.
As the song says, something's gotta give. For sure, peak-period pricing is no silver bullet. Still, it is the obvious next step. Maybe we could make it more palatable by calling it off-period discounting. Don't laugh; it works for hotels and rental cars.