Ask the pilot

With the Democrats in power can we look forward to flying with our liquids and gels again? Is civil aviation even affected by the political tide?


Patrick Smith
November 17, 2006 5:30PM (UTC)

"Now that we're fully briefed on the arcana of turbulence and wingtip vortices," the letter began, "how about getting on to something meatier, such as how last week's Democratic wipeout of the U.S. House and Senate might impact commercial flying. Will it?"

This is Salon, after all, and admittedly my last two columns were non sequiturs amid the magazine's clamorous gear-up to the midterms (and the subsequent after party). I'm a born contrarian, so the diversions were somewhat intentional. Besides, if you remember my pre-election special from 2004, you know that I'm a political bad luck charm. But the question above is a good one, and presumably others are wondering the same thing. Therefore, my eagerly anticipated column on the comparative aesthetics of in-flight cutlery will have to wait.

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Several aspects of civil aviation are influenced in some way by the political tide. On Capitol Hill, both the House of Representatives and the Senate have dedicated aviation subcommittees that meet regularly and wield considerable influence over policies of the FAA, TSA, NTSB and other acronymic entities that mind and monitor our skies. (Not that anything particularly radical seems to emerge from their meetings, and I wouldn't recommend sitting in on one unless you're one of those people who read legal briefs for fun or enjoy getting up early to watch C-SPAN.) The subcommittees are formally bipartisan, but it stands to reason that regime change in Washington would have meaningful implications for airlines and their passengers. True?

The short answer is no, not really. For one thing, the airline business exists in a parallel universe of sorts -- an oddly transpartisan (that's not the same as bipartisan) world where traditional party-line decision making doesn't always apply. It's hard to forget Ronald Reagan's mass firing of on-strike air traffic controllers in 1981, an antilabor salvo that paralyzed airports for days and threw thousands of government professionals -- albeit illegally picketing ones, in the eyes of some -- out of work. Then again, it was Bill Clinton who stopped American Airlines pilots from striking in 1996, using executive power to force a 60-day mediation period. Another Democrat, Jimmy Carter, signed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, unshackling domestic airlines from their government minders and letting loose a hurricane of free-market competition that revolutionized the way people fly. Three decades later, for all its pro-American rhetoric and big-business bluster, the Bush administration and Republican Congress haven't been friendly to the airlines, their employees or their customers.

A panel of congressional staff members, subcommittee members and airline notables is set to convene in Washington on Nov. 21 to discuss a variety of aviation-related matters. The panel, scheduled in advance of the elections, will be moderated by Perry Flint, editor in chief of Air Transport World, the airline industry's magazine of record and preeminent statistical storehouse. I asked Flint if he believes anything exciting is in store, and what he thinks the subcommittees' priorities ought to be for the immediate future.

In his opinion, the most crucial issues aren't necessarily the sexiest ones. Dealing with the airline pension fund messes, for instance. Another issue with significant ramifications: the Department of Transportation's proposal to partly liberalize the laws limiting foreign ownership and control of U.S. airlines. Currently, outside influence of a domestic carrier is held to a maximum of 25 percent control of its voting board, and 49 percent of its total equity. The DOT's plan to amend these constraints is for now dormant and fraught with complications, but the rules are seen by many, including Flint, as parochial anachronisms in a growingly globalized economy. "The rest of the world is moving one way," says Flint, "while we're not moving at all."

On the surface, our largest airlines present powerful multinational pretensions, but in truth they are purely domestic entities, beholden to local investors and stockholders, tightly monitored (and sometimes abused) by federal agencies, and hostage to the regulatory whims of the countries to which they fly. Conceivably, greater foreign investment would result in better and healthier airlines. It could allow for cross-border mergers and eliminate obstacles toward establishing a so-called Open Aviation Area across the Atlantic (and potentially elsewhere), providing consumers with considerably more choices for international travel.

Nonetheless, there hasn't been a groundswell of support among America's airlines. It's hard to say, really, if they stand to lose more than they'd gain. An influx of non-U.S. capital would be welcome by some, but that doesn't mean they'd get it. "There are two things here," says Flint. "First, airlines probably figure they've done enough in the past five years to anger labor. Plus, if you're a European billionaire looking to invest in an airline, chances are you're not going to sink your money into a network carrier; you're going to give it to a low-cost newcomer like Virgin America." That'd be Richard Branson's latest brainchild, tentatively headquartered in San Francisco, that may or may not be flying soon.

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More vocal opposition to change comes from organized labor. Upstarts in the mold of JetBlue, AirTran, et al. are almost guaranteed to be nonunion companies, and America's beleaguered majors aren't eager to be set upon, on their home turf, by solidly financed rivals from overseas. The idea of devil-horned foreigners stuffing their pockets while thousands of U.S. workers head for the unemployment lines has an element of caricature (nobody has played the Dubai Ports card yet, knock on wood, dragging terrorism and national security into the mix), but for the time being, one has to admit, anything that might sucker-punch the majors, still bandaged and wobbly after posting a combined $35 billion in losses since 2001, would seem a bit cruel.

Prior to the elections, some analysts saw the Republican dominance of Washington as the best chance for partial or full relaxation of ownership prohibitions. There wasn't much movement, and any radical changes are especially doubtful now. "I don't see it happening," concedes Perry Flint. "I think the issue is dead."

Elsewhere on the radar:

  • Ticket taxes and fees

    On average, about 16 percent of the price of an airline ticket -- more for international trips -- consists of taxes, surcharges and fees: federal ticket tax; federal segment tax; passenger facility charge; federal security service fee; customs fees; international arrival and departure taxes; cargo waybill tax; jet fuel tax. With heavily discounted fares, these add-ons can account for up to half of the ticket's ultimate total cost.

    This has been a hot-button topic across the spectrum, raising the ire of everybody from the Air Line Pilots Association to David Stempler's passenger advocacy group, the Air Travelers Association. "Enough already!" cried Stempler in a prepared statement in 2005, responding to the Bush administration's proposal to increase security fees by 120 percent. Stempler and I rarely see eye to eye (his "Airline Safety Report Card" list is one of the more bogus and misleading things I've seen), and he did not respond to calls or e-mails for this article, but this time he's right. According to one study, originally cited in this column several months ago, the average base fare has fallen 40 percent over the past dozen years, while ticket taxes and fees have stayed relatively constant. Thus, the percentage paid in taxes has steadily increased. Among other things, this makes it difficult for airlines to raise prices, if only to keep pace with inflation.

    Most of the increases have come since 2001, under the watch of a supposedly anti-tax administration. Still, I wouldn't expect any relief, especially with respect to security surcharges (see next item).

  • Safety and airport security

    It's easy to blame the right, with its color-coded alerts and successful mass marketing of fear, for the sad state of affairs at concourse checkpoints across America, but our irrational approach to safety goes straight across party lines. Whoever is to blame, our government or ourselves, airport protocols have become so rapidly institutionalized that uprooting them will be next to impossible. It's naive to imagine Democrats sweeping into power, lifting the liquids and gels ban and letting us keep our shoes on, sensible as those things might be. If anything, existing policies are liable to become more deeply entrenched. The right will continue to wave the red herring of ethnic and religious profiling, which, in a way, corners the left into perpetuating the search everybody/confiscate everything madness we've been dealing with. There's little the average citizen can do, but what about the airlines, who have everything to lose as more and more people opt to drive rather than fly, and increasing numbers of high-end business travelers migrate to private aviation?

    "Airlines have complained quite a bit," says Perry Flint. "But despite what a lot of people think, they have little political clout. Carriers are large corporations, but geographically they are highly diffuse, with small constituencies of political support. The TSA and DHS -- these are enormously powerful bureaucracies, and they aren't afraid of anyone. Screeners even took away Joe Foss' Congressional Medal of Honor, for heaven's sake, because it had sharp edges!" Foss, who died in 2003 at age 88, was a retired general and decorated veteran of World War II. He was stopped by TSA guards at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport in 2002.

    "The only thing that will help create a new security paradigm," believes Flint, "is when enough people simply stop flying."

  • Air traffic control

    America's ATC system is maintained and administered by the Federal Aviation Administration. It is by no means in the crisis state many submit, though like much of our national infrastructure it has been neglected and underfunded. No single administration or political party is to blame, though the problem has gotten worse in recent years. The FAA has never been the most progressive or fast-acting agency; still, because billions have been squandered elsewhere, we're left with an airway system dependent on antiquated, ground-based radio beacons. En route separation rules are based on decades-old standards, causing long delays at major hubs, and many airports lack sorely needed equipment such as ground radar. The technology exists to make America's skies the safest and most efficient in the world, but progress has been excruciatingly slow, and the funding for many initiatives has been slashed. Will the pace pick up? Probably not.

  • Other areas

    Mergers and acquisitions

    US Airways' hostile takeover bid of Delta, announced on Wednesday, would create the world's largest carrier. The merger requires government approval, in accordance with guidelines stipulated by the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, and they're touchy about this sort of thing. A tentative US Airways-United consolidation was sunk back in 2000. The decision-making process isn't especially sensitive to politics per se, although this time around you might see extra attention focused on the number of expected layoffs, if any, and antitrust aspects of the new supercarrier's dominance of certain markets. A combined US Airways-Delta entity would be a force to be reckoned with in many areas, particularly along the Eastern seaboard.

    US Airways serves only a token number of international destinations, and from its point of view the acquisition makes good sense, taking advantage of Delta's enormous and rapidly expanding overseas network. It'd be quite a move for the former Allegheny Airlines, which until 25 years ago didn't venture beyond the Mississippi River.

    The economics of mergers are a lot deeper than connecting dots on a map, but strictly from a routes point of view, I always thought a Delta-Northwest combo made more sense -- the former with the industry's transatlantic network, the latter with 50 years' experience in Asia. Should the courts grant approval, more mega-mergers may follow.

    Mean and Green

    In Europe, the Greens are proposing a slew of new anti-airline measures ostensibly to curb carbon emissions. Ideas include levying a ticket tax to help fund rail projects and other punitive measures engineered to stifle the growth of commercial aviation. Partisan newspapers, such as Britain's Independent, have called for readers to journey overland rather than fly. Could it happen here, with a more carbon-sensitive Congress (or, looking ahead, president)? Doubtful, in a country that by and large can't admit there's a carbon problem to start with.

    In any case, are the European Union's concerns misplaced? The impact of aircraft exhaust, injected directly into the upper troposphere, isn't completely understood. But while I'm one of the greenest people I know, how is it that an industry that produces 3 percent of the planet's total carbon emissions, and 14 percent of total transportation-related emissions, seems to absorb 90 percent of the flak.

  • In summary

    "The people in Congress enjoy the same things about flying that you and I do," says Perry Flint. "And the same things that tick us off are the things that tick them off." I'm not sure if that's good or bad. In any event, while a shift in the balance of power has the potential to bring about serious, even systemic changes, these probably won't occur in ways that will be quickly or overtly noticeable to the average passenger. Two, three or even 10 years from now, the air travel experience shouldn't be markedly different, regardless of who holds the reins in Washington.

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    Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


  • Patrick Smith

    Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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