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Jewish World ReviewAugust 2, 2001 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5761

George Will

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Consumer Reports

600 Million Complainers -- AMERICANS are gifted grousers who in this vacation season are employing that gift against airlines. However, consider four facts about the complainers.

They have the luxury of complaining about late arrivals -- 450,000 of them last year, 20 percent more than in 1999 -- and lost luggage because the biggest potential problem of any mode of transportation, safety, is so slight. Air travel is the safest mode of travel ever. Including walking in a medieval countryside or a modern metropolis.

Today's complainers are the heart of the problem with the air travel system. Air travel has been democratized in the 23 years since airlines were (partially) deregulated. As recently as 1975, 80 percent of Americans had never flown. Recently air travel has been expanding about twice as fast as the economy.

Today in America, which is one-third of the world aviation market, a fleet of 7,000 planes makes 8 million scheduled commercial flights a year -- 22,000 a day -- carrying 600 million passengers who, on average, are paying 70 cents less (adjusted for inflation) per passenger mile than two decades ago. Soon there will be a billion passengers annually testing an air system that also is transporting an increasing amount of manufactured goods.

Complaining travelers -- the entire American public, minus a few hermits and stoics -- are the principal obstacle to solving the crux of the problem, which is congestion. Americans are ferocious proponents of NIMBY -- Not In My Backyard -- when it comes to building new airports. At the 30 busiest airports, which handle 70 percent of air traffic, only six new runways have been opened in the past 10 years.

Even without new airports, congestion would be largely conquered if more of today's complaining travelers, most of whom seem to prefer 8 a.m. takeoffs, were willing to fly at, say, 3 a.m. Any volunteers? You may check in over there, at that counter with the short line. And if there are not enough volunteers, airports can force the issue by implementing "congestion pricing" -- charging airlines, hence fliers, higher fees for using runways at peak traffic hours.

Air travel delays cost uncountable billions annually in lost economic productivity and other expenses, such as hotel expenses for travelers arriving for a business appointment a day early rather than trusting to on-time flights. Delays are especially injurious to the carriers. Because of the high fuel prices and curtailed business travel resulting from the Gulf War and the mild recession, the airline industry lost more money in two years of the early '90s than it had made in the 60 years since its birth. Today, what are time-consuming delays on runways for fliers are fuel-consuming delays for airlines.

Even if, as the airlines claim, 70 percent of delays are caused by weather, the other 30 percent is a lot of lost time. The proliferation of shops and restaurants in airports -- Pittsburgh's almost seems to be a mall with an airport attached to it -- is symptomatic: Retailers know that travelers are going to have a lot of time to kill before they board their planes. Then comes the wait on the runway. Hence the ominous new phrase, "pushback time."

A government study concludes that for trips of 500 miles or less -- a majority of flights; 40 percent are of 300 miles or less -- automotive travel is as fast or faster than air travel, door to door. Columnist Robert Kuttner sensibly says that fact strengthens the case for high-speed trains. If such trains replaced air shuttles in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, Kuttner says that would free about 60 takeoff and landing slots per hour. Last September New York's La Guardia Airport was responsible for 20 percent of that month's delays nationwide. La Guardia and four other airports (Chicago's O'Hare, Newark, Atlanta, San Francisco) were responsible for 46 percent of last year's delays.

While waiting for the fast trains to arrive, complaining travelers should focus on why they do so much waiting in airports and on runways: Again, the air travel system is clogged because flying is becoming steadily cheaper. Iain Carson of the Economist notes that "the Internet and aviation were made for each other," because flights are a high-value, perishable commodity, so instantaneous information about them is highly valuable. Hence the prodigious search engine used by a consortium of airlines. Carson says it processes half a billion combinations in seconds to maximize travelers' choices of flight times and prices.

The prices are actual. The times, unfortunately, are hypothetical.

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