Editor’s Note: A Crisis Averted

By Bill Carey | January 1, 2008
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This is a column about a crisis averted. I’m referring to the Thanksgiving travel crush, which was preceded by grim prognostications of delayed and cancelled flights and a level of media coverage you’d expect for an approaching hurricane.

Coming after the dismal on-time performance of airlines last summer, the situation was deemed serious enough that President Bush himself, with acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell at his side, announced temporary steps to relieve air-traffic congestion over the holidays, as well as longer-term proposals to better manage demand in the future.

For the short term, special-use airspace along the Eastern seaboard, normally used by the military, would be reserved for airlines for five days around Thanksgiving. Questioned about the utility of doing that during a press briefing after the president’s announcement, Nancy Kalinowski, FAA acting vice president of systems operations, said using military routes "essentially gets people out of the New York area quicker." FAA also pressed ahead with procedural fixes to ease congestion at New York City-area airports, for example, allowing simultaneous, staggered approaches to adjacent runways at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Further, a moratorium was placed on non-essential construction projects. Airlines and airports, participating in a conference call before the holiday, agreed to provide extra staffing and equipment to expedite check-in and boarding.

"This is really a time of joy for our families. Unfortunately, this is also a season of dread for too many Americans," the president said.

It’s true. Nowadays, people look at you with a mix of pity and wonderment when you mention plans to fly home (or to what used to be home) for the holidays. That’s the sorry perception of commercial air travel as we soldier into 2008.

My own, short hop from Washington Dulles to Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn., on Thanksgiving day was uneventful. I was impressed that Dulles, not one of my favorite airports, at least had the parking situation covered. Starting at the economy parking entrance, workers holding glow-sticks waved us through the green, gold and purple lots to the few remaining spaces along the perimeter, and shuttle buses appeared immediately to whisk us to the main terminal. Not bad for an airport with 25,000 public parking spaces to manage.

The outbound flight to BDL was held up for an hour by fog in Hartford, but that’s the nature of the beast. In fact, the only lesson learned from the trip was that boarding passes downloaded from the Internet aren’t the peace-of-mind I thought they were. My wife and I showed up at Dulles with "departure management cards." At check-in, she was issued a boarding pass; I was told to proceed to the gate for a seat assignment, worth a couple of clicks on the stress meter. We printed out bona fide, bar-coded boarding passes for the return flight, but these were changed at the gate for different seats.

At any rate, the feared nightmare scenario did not come to pass on Thanksgiving. (Alas Christmas was approaching as this issue went to press). "Fearing Worst, Air Travelers Find Smooth Going," read The New York Times headline on Thanksgiving day. And the lead paragraph: "The confluence of good luck and better planning made much of yesterday (Nov. 21) a surprisingly smooth one for holiday travelers at many airports across the country, passengers, airline executives and their employees said."

At the tail end of the holiday, The Washington Post reported: "Despite doom-and-gloom forecasts, most Thanksgiving air travelers zipped past ticket counters and through security lines onto punctual flights. Over the 12-day travel period that ended yesterday (Nov. 25), flight delays were scattered and mostly short, except in areas such as New York, where low clouds hampered some arrivals and departures."

To be sure, benevolent weather lifted our collective wings more than anything else, but it also served as a force multiplier of the steps we — the government, airlines and airports — did take.

The moral of the story, I think, is that solutions already available to us, plus a renewed focus on customer service by the airlines, can help bridge the gap until the Next Generation Air Transportation System becomes reality. Maybe in this way we can avert crises to come.

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