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Flying close to the margins

Kai Ryssdal Feb 20, 2007

Flying close to the margins

Kai Ryssdal Feb 20, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s a far cry from the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, but discount airline JetBlue came out today with its passenger bill of rights. The carrier’s trying to bounce back from what CEO David Neeleman calls a mortifying series of events over the past week. Passengers stuck in planes on the ground for 10 or 11 hours. And cancellations that fouled up its schedule into today.

Bad as it’s been for JetBlue though, it might just as easily have been any other major carrier. Scott McCartney covers aviation for the Wall Street Journal. Scott, thanks for being here.

SCOTT MCCARTNEY: Good to be with you.

RYSSDAL: So JetBlue’s in the middle of paying what it says is gonna be something like $30 million to make sure that this whole debacle never happens again. But there are so many things other than even the weather that are just out of its control entirely.

MCCARTNEY: It’s a very complicated dance. And a lot of the problems that we’ve seen have resulted from policies from the way that the federal government runs the air traffic control system. The way airports are built and managed. The way gates are controlled at airports.

RYSSDAL: What’s your feeling on the likelihood of any one of those three things being fixed?

MCCARTNEY: There’s tremendous pressure building on the industry. And I think airlines should get together through their trade association and have a summit meeting. And get the FAA on board, and get the airports on board. And come up with fixes. I mean I don’t think a passenger bill of rights that’s gonna compensate you for delays . . . There’s sort of like a bit of a money-back guarantee, like you’d get at a retail store. But that doesn’t fix the basic problem here. And the basic problem is that the air-travel system that we have today isn’t keeping up with demand.

RYSSDAL: Let’s go down the list of items though. I mean, anybody who has sat at New York’s Kennedy airport or LAX out here in Los Angeles on a busy travel day knows that there just aren’t enough gates to go around. They’re switching the planes in and out of there like crazy.

MCCARTNEY: That’s right. I mean, airlines have been under financial pressure for so long that one way to get more efficient is to schedule your gates, your people, your aircraft, everything you possibly can on as tight a schedule as possible to get as much productivity out. The problem is, when bad weather hits, there’s no cushion in the schedule to catch up.

RYSSDAL: With planes as full as they are these days, Scott, I’d imagine there’s a huge disincentive for airlines to actually cancel a flight. If you’re canceling a plane that’s got 25 people on it, it’s one thing. But if it’s a 747 with 400 people on it, that’s a whole lot of money.

MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Especially at holiday periods, when, you know, it may be days before people can get out. Because there is no slack in the system, it’s very difficult. I do think that it is better to give people the choice to cancel the flight and let them make a choice of whether they want to make the trip or not. Whether they want to get on the train, whether they want to rent a car and drive, whether they want to try another airline. There are lots of ways to get to where you’re going. But if the airline keeps you trapped on an airplane for eight hours, you have no options.

RYSSDAL: Somebody’s gotta be in charge, though, right? It’s gotta be either the FAA in charge with its rules and regulations, it’s an airline in charge with its policy, or it’s the captain of the airplane in charge, and he’s able to taxi back to a gate.

MCCARTNEY: Well that’s one of the huge problems. You mentioned three players. They’re all in charge, and yet, nobody’s in charge. The captain is in charge of the aircraft, but the captain can’t take off without permission from the FAA. Captain can’t go back to a gate without permission from the company. There are lots of restrictions on what the captain can do, just as there are lots of restrictions on what the other guys can do.

RYSSDAL: Scott, how much of this do you think is related to what’s going on in aviation

writ large? That is, falling profits, consolidation, passenger discontent . . .

MCCARTNEY: Airlines have to work with the infrastructure that we have. And it’s just not adequate to meet all the need. There are some warning signs. It’s interesting to note that JetBlue last year, of the 10 biggest airlines, it was worst of the 10 in terms of on-time performance. It’s really struggled with its operation really for two years now. Because it hasn’t had adequate resources, because it’s introduced a new aircraft into its fleet. So, like a lot of things, there were warning signs here that there were problems with the JetBlue operation. And when that storm hit, it all snowballed.

RYSSDAL: Scott McCartney’s the travel editor for the Wall Street Journal. Scott, good to talk to you.

MCCARTNEY: Great to be with you, Kai.

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