Airline executives have by now
taken note that people are willing to spend good money to fly
long-haul to exotic destinations halfway around the world but get
awfully upset spending a similar amount of time on an aircraft that
During this winter of
passenger discontent, American got a public relations black eye
when it kept a planeload of travelers sitting on the tarmac for
more than eight hours in Austin, Texas. JetBlue got a matching
shiner a month-and-a-half later for similar behavior at New York's
The airlines face not
only bad publicity but threats of class actions. The last time
passengers got this litigiously upset about sitting on a plane was
eight years earlier, when Northwest kept passengers onboard a
grounded aircraft amid deteriorating conditions.
In the intervening
years, there have been plenty of winter storms resulting in massive
delays and cancellations, yet their aftermath sparked little
changed? Why did airlines risk igniting passenger fury by keeping
them captive on the plane rather than returning to a gate?
Sometimes, as happened at JFK, they can't return; Jet Blue ran out
of gates. And there are other legitimate operational reasons to
stay on the tarmac if there's a chance that a flight may be cleared
for takeoff in the foreseeable future.
Still, when the
deplaning option does exist, there's a factor that clouds an
airline's judgment: air traffic control. Airlines are loathe to
lose their place in the takeoff queue once a plane leaves the gate.
This is in part a function of getting airplanes and people where
they're supposed to be -- to avoid having more disgruntled
passengers down the line -- but it's also related to overcrowded
airports and skies. If you lose your place in line, you may
increase your delay by hours if you return to a gate.
The 36% rise in air
traffic that is predicted over the next 10 years will result in an
even greater increase in air traffic control-related delays. The
Federal Aviation Administration estimates that by 2014, delays will
have grown by 62% over 2004 levels.
At the FAA's annual
forecast conference last month, there was unanimity on the need for
updating air traffic control but discord during discussions
regarding funding mechanisms. The Air Transport Association is
complaining, loudly, that its commercial airline members pay a
disproportionate share of the costs of running the air traffic
Their allegations of
inequities hinge on data that show commercial airlines, in
aggregate, pay significantly more, on average, per takeoff and
landing than does "business aviation," i.e., small corporate
aircraft. To the air traffic controllers, says the ATA, a blip is a
blip; there is just as much cost to the government to shepherd a
small plane as a large one, so per-aircraft fees are
Its adversary in the
debate, the National Business Aviation Association, points out that
commercial jet liners are in the air longer and run expensive hubs.
But, paradoxically for an association populated primarily by
wealthy capitalists, the data suggest they're underlying motivation
is rooted in the Marxist maxim, "From each according to his
ability, to each according to his need."
The FAA predicts
enormous growth in business aviation which will, of course, crowd
the skies further. Higher fees to this sector may suppress some of
that growth, but it's hardly the solution to overcrowded
There needs to be
some real movement toward resolving our air traffic control crisis.
The Airbus A380 is coming, and no airline wants to face 500 to 800
passengers who have just spent hours imprisoned on the tarmac
together, drawing up precedence-setting lawsuits: the first
first-class class action, the first business-class class action and
the first economy-class class action.