Ask the pilot

We're about to elect a new president. Will he have the will to take on the serious issues affecting air travel?

By Patrick Smith
Published October 31, 2008 10:20AM (EDT)

Before we get going, let me tie up a couple of loose ends from last week's column about the travel habits of Americans (or should I say nontravel habits), which got something of a quarrel going on the letters board.

"Lots of Americans don't travel overseas, true," begins one of the posts. "But then people from other nations don't either, or if they do mostly it is just organized vacation tourism, which is not really Paul Theroux-style traveling."

I couldn't disagree more. Certainly there are plenty of foreigners who, like their American counterparts, travel primarily in search of sun, surf and relaxation; in essence the beach resorts of Goa, India, or Phuket, Thailand, aren't a whole lot different from, say, Cancun. But the minute one departs from the proverbial beaten path, he or she is struck by the dearth of American tourists as compared with those from other nations: Brits, Dutch, Australians, Germans, Israelis, Japanese. Nations like Australia and Holland have relatively tiny populations, yet per capita they travel far more widely than we do. I have been on numerous group adventure tours -- in Egypt, Africa, India, Southeast Asia and elsewhere -- and frequently, out of 10 or 15 people, I was the only American. You notice this even in parts of Latin America, only a few hours' flying time from the U.S. mainland. Granted, most foreigners receive considerably more vacation time than we do, and our continent's geography, bookended by a pair of large oceans, makes long-distance travel difficult. But at heart the issue is less of practicality than of a peculiar American insularity and inertia.

I also need to disagree with the reader who objects to the use of the term "American" in reference to citizens of the United States -- the argument being that "American" pertains to the inhabitants of all the Americas, North and South. Technically this is correct, and there are a few places, particularly in Latin countries, where describing oneself as American will result in some confusion. But for the most part, all around the globe "American" is the common and accepted term for a U.S. citizen. The meaning of the word has evolved over time, and there is nothing ignorant or offensive about it. Contending otherwise is pedantic and a waste of time.

Everyone down with that? Good.

Moving on, this is my last column before next week's electoral apocalypse, and I'll try to address a question that various readers have sent my way of late. Namely, how will a change of presidential administrations -- including, so it seems at this juncture, a likely change of parties -- affect air travel for the average United Statesian, er, I mean American?

Not to sound cynical or to undermine my belief that we should, as a nation, be scrupulous at the ballot box, but my answer is a big, fat, Who the hell knows? I see no major changes ahead, regardless of which candidate prevails.

To a degree, however, that depends on which sorts of incidents and crises the airlines have to deal with in the months ahead. Presumably, Republicans would be more sympathetic to large-scale mergers or acquisitions, for example, and less sympathetic to the problems of strikes, mass layoffs, etc.

Though not necessarily. The airline business exists in a parallel universe of sorts, where traditional party-line decision making doesn't always apply. We remember Ronald Reagan's mass firing of on-strike air traffic controllers in 1981, a salvo that paralyzed airports for days and threw thousands of government professionals out of work. Then again, it was Bill Clinton who prevented 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. Three decades later, for all its patriotic rhetoric and big-business bluster, the Bush administration and, for a time, a Republican-dominated Congress, haven't been friendly to the airlines, their employees or their customers.

There are numerous issues in serious need of attention, but whether they receive it, in a time of more urgent national problems, is maybe a long shot.

For one, our air traffic control system needs extensive upgrades. Like much of America's infrastructure, it is outdated, inefficient and prone to expensive failures. But where the billions necessary for an overhaul might come from is anybody's guess. There are ticket taxes and surcharges already in place for this purpose, but they are woefully insufficient. Can we raise them without causing an outcry, and by how much?

No less important is a means of encouraging the nation's airlines to better rationalize their schedules. Congestion and delays are caused not only by those aforementioned ATC shortcomings but by the self-defeating scheduling practices of the airlines. This reality is unacknowledged by most regulators, and occluded by flak and propaganda thrown up by industry lobbyists. What's needed is a Department of Transportation with some teeth, willing to take a fresh look at the problem. Will we get one?

On the environmental front, would an Obama administration move forward with a European-style clampdown on air traffic? Europe's Greens have prepared a slew of punitive measures engineered to stifle growth of commercial aviation, ostensibly to curb carbon emissions. Could it happen here, with a more carbon-sensitive Congress and president? I'd say that's highly doubtful in a slowing economy, with a population that by and large won't admit there's a carbon problem to start with. In any case, the environmental footprint of aviation is routinely distorted and remains very small in comparison to other polluters (deforestation, commercial buildings, automobiles). If we are serious about climate change, aviation is pretty far down the hierarchy of threats.

Then, of course, there's the issue of airport security. There are some who hold out hope that regime change, so to speak, might result in an overhaul of the Transportation Security Administration's ludicrous and wasteful policies. The concourse checkpoint charade, and its obsession with scissors and shampoo bottles, needs to be dismantled, with a greater emphasis returned to explosives screening, particularly at overseas airports. Unfortunately, until a jetliner is bombed from the sky, I don't see this happening. There are too many people, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, not to mention the bureaucrats within TSA itself, who believe in the current protocols. TSA has dug itself in, and I have a hard time believing that Obama or anybody else will have the tenacity to uproot or fix it. Public pressure, not political pressure, is what's needed, and the traveling public has been either too apathetic or too browbeaten to care. "The only thing that will help create a new security paradigm," says Perry Flint, editor of Air Transport World magazine, "is when enough people simply stop flying."

Meanwhile those "registered traveler" machines are popping up at airports now, with their iris scanners, providing expedited security screening for those who enroll. Rather than fix a broken system, Americans can now pay to avoid it. If that's not the security-industrial complex in full splendor, what is? And we're stuck with it, I'm afraid.

So, that said, even if there's little change on tap, I suspect that a John McCain victory, at least on paper, holds the potential for greater impact. And for airline workers especially, that impact would mostly be negative.

In addition to his anti-union policies, Sen. McCain is a proponent of so-called cabotage, whereby foreign carriers would be allowed to compete with our own on U.S. domestic routes. The senator maintains this would only be allowed in exchange for certain reciprocal privileges abroad, but the policy is opposed by unions and airlines both. In theory it is a decent idea in that it might encourage U.S. airlines to clean up their act, customer service-wise. But that would be quite a challenge in the face of competition even more cutthroat than already exists.

It could be disastrous for employees, especially if foreign ownership restrictions of U.S. airlines were also relaxed. A Department of Transportation proposal to liberalize the laws limiting foreign ownership and control of a U.S. airline, currently held to a maximum of 25 percent control of its voting board, and 49 percent of its total equity, is for now dormant and fraught with complications, but it could, conceivably, be rekindled if the political environment welcomed it. An influx of non-U.S. capital is likely to wind up in the coffers of upstart carriers rather than with the legacy majors, intensifying high-risk fare wars. In a worst-case scenario, tens of thousands of jobs would effectively be outsourced to non-American carriers, or lost entirely.

You might think, therefore, that most airline pilots are rooting for Barack Obama.

Well, maybe not, actually.

I'm not sure what it is about pilots, but they are among those groups of Americans who seem to excel at voting contrary to their own interests -- namely career interests. Pilots, most of whom are union members making blue-collar wages, tend to vote conservative and Republican, siding with candidates whose policies are at times openly hostile to labor and accommodating to schemes like cabotage.

I asked a friend of mine, a conservative evangelical who flies for a major carrier, how he reconciled with the idea of casting his ballot for a candidate who is probably the more threatening of the two when it comes to his livelihood.

"What my liberal co-workers fail to understand," he says, "is that I don't vote against what I consider my most important interests. Career interests do not override my conservative ideology -- my preferences for smaller government, lower taxes, a strong military, constitutional justices, an intact Second Amendment and so forth. The present administration excluded, Republicans are more closely aligned with my ideology. Actually, I have more in common with the Libertarian view, but since we are working with a two-party system, I don't throw my vote away.

"Regarding McCain's specific policies," my friend continues, "I don't think he'd have much luck getting those passed into law with a Democratic Congress. I think the Congress has much more influence over labor issues than the executive branch. Honestly, though, I don't believe that any administration really cares about us as much as we'd like to think. For instance, there are pilots at my company who believe we'd still have our pensions if John Kerry had been elected. Balderdash."

The profession's military roots, too, have much to do with its political mind-set. About half of all airline pilots are recruited from the military.

"Many pilots have a military background, and have long been indoctrinated into thinking that Republicans are strong on defense and national security," says Jan Donatelli, the founder of a group called Airline Pilots for Obama. Donatelli is also a former U.S. Navy Reserve pilot, and describes herself as a "former lifelong Republican." In keeping with their background, she explains, "pilots tend to put the country first -- to coin a phrase that's being used a lot lately -- voting for what they perceive is better for the country, rather than for themselves."

That being said, I have noticed far more pro-Obama sentiment among colleagues over the past several months than I ever noticed pro-Clinton, pro-Gore or pro-Kerry sentiment. I would estimate that up to 70 percent of the crew members I have flown with this year are planning to vote for Obama. This is possibly symptomatic of the crew base I'm assigned to (one of those big liberal cities in the Northeast), but there's something else too.

Jan Donatelli agrees. "There seems to be much more support for Obama than for any of the recent Democratic nominees. The dramatic decline of our profession over the last several years has been so drastic, with bankruptcies, furloughs, massive pay cuts and the loss of thousands of pensions, that pilots are finally learning the issues, and the true facts of the parties' economic effects. We're delving deeper than campaign rhetoric."

FEC records show that as of March 2008, 41 percent of all pilots who contributed to a presidential campaign contributed to Barack Obama.

So we'll see what happens.

Until then, it's time for me to dust off one of my favorite anecdotes -- a series of related vignettes, actually, last seen in the space four years ago.

One day in 1980 I'm airplane watching at Boston-Logan with a pair of my pals from junior high. Who disembarks from a TWA plane only a few feet in front of us but Jerry Brown, then governor of California, and his entourage. You might remember Brown, aka "Governor Moonbeam," known for his dabblings in Buddhism, his long liaison with Linda Ronstadt and his appearance in one of the most famous punk rock songs of all time -- the Dead Kennedys' "California Über Alles."

A decade later, on a Sunday morning in 1990, I'm standing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, the busy general aviation field across the Hudson from New York City. A private jet pulls up, and out steps Jesse Jackson and several burly bodyguards. Jackson walks into the terminal, passing me by inches.

The following summer I'm back at Logan, using a pay phone in Terminal E. Suddenly Ted Kennedy is standing at the phone next to mine, placing a call. Quaint, I know, in this age of wireless, but there was the famous senator, dropping dimes into the slot.

Next it's 1994. Logan again, and I'm in the captain's seat of a Northwest Airlink 19-seater, preparing for departure to Baltimore. Up the front stairs comes Michael Dukakis. He stops briefly behind the cockpit and I say hello.

Later that same year, Al Gore is making the commencement speech at Harvard University, close to my Cambridge apartment. Out riding my bike, I stumble on the vice president, his wife, Tipper, and their two blond daughters as they make their way across the back of Harvard Yard toward a rope line. He shakes my hand.

The fuller and funnier descriptions of the above -- those meetings with Dukakis and Gore especially -- can be read here.

Brown, Jackson, Kennedy, Dukakis, Gore. Maybe you've figured it out. All five of those individuals have three things in common: All five are Democrats. All five ran for president. And all five lost. Make that four things in common: They all had a run-in with yours truly.

Pilots aren't supposed to be superstitious, but I am wondering if maybe the safest place for me to be these next several days is barricaded in a basement. Yes, I know, I maintained at least a five-mile berth from John Kerry at all times, and look what happened. And in the case of Kennedy, at least, my encounter took place several years after his failed run for the White House, meaning my reverse Midas effect would have to involve some time travel. But still. I'm just saying. It's weird.

I have never met or seen any Republican presidential contender, so I can't say for sure if it works for them too. For all I know, it might have the opposite reaction, which is why I'm also staying clear of any McCain rallies.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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2008 Elections Air Travel Ask The Pilot Barack Obama Business John Mccain