've averaged one roundtrip flight per
week since Sept. 11, so I've got a pretty good handle on how the
situation at airports has evolved since then.
Early on, it was a zoo, and highly unpredictable -- one really
did need to get to an airport two hours ahead of time to be certain
of getting on board.
But lately, even with the increased likelihood that one's shoes
will be X-rayed, the system seems to have adjusted, and I've been
leaving later and later to get to the airport.
I recently got an e-newsletter from American Airlines that
suggested I arrive just one hour before domestic departures, the
pre-Sept. 11 "normal" recommendation.
So things are getting back to normal. Is that good or bad? On
the same day the e-newsletter arrived, Don Carty, president of
American Airlines, warned that "once customer demand returns to
pre-9/11 levels -- and it will -- we will find ourselves once again
headed for gridlock."
Every day, Travel Weekly receives news from airlines that are
restoring routes cut after Sept. 11. I can well remember air
traffic from six months ago, and as things return to full capacity,
we'll have all the hassles of an overloaded system plus the newer,
increased security measures.
For some insight into why we're in this mess, let's turn to
Romania and the Zega family.
I first met the Zegas in February 1991, when I went to newly
free eastern Europe to assess how the political changes would
affect travel in that region.
One change was that citizens felt free to talk with foreigners,
and during a flight layover, I was invited to join a table of air
traffic control students in an airport cafeteria.
We had a far-ranging discussion, and one of them invited me to
meet his family once we touched down in Costanta on the Black Sea
coast. It turned out that his sister and brother-in-law were also
air traffic controllers. Their hospitality was endless, and I've
stayed in touch, twice playing host to them in the U.S.
On their first visit, in 1993, I arranged for them to tour an
air traffic control tower in Austin, Texas. They were impressed
with the technology.
On their second visit, in 1997, they expressed little interest
in seeing the U.S. systems again. "We know what they have, and
Romania's is now much more sophisticated."
I asked them how that could be.
"Most of the world's air traffic control systems are more
sophisticated than that of the U.S.," Adrian Zega said. "The
problem is that, within a country, the system has to be
coordinated. You can't have half a country on an old system and
half on a new.
"For a European-sized country, this is not a big problem --
changing over to a more sophisticated system is manageable. But for
a system the size of the U.S., it is a huge, complex problem. They
can't get it figured out."
If he's right, we're stuck with outdated technology. There are,
of course, infrastructure problems other than technology that
contribute to gridlock.
Additional aspects (number of runways, available gate space,
etc.) of many U.S. airports are inadequate and unable to handle
"normal" traffic loads.
It's ironic that our nation's size, so often a tremendous
benefit to the U.S., is working against us. And that countries we
would consider as still "developing" have an air traffic system
superior to ours.