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And You Think Air Travel Is Awful Now

Robert Ditchey, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is a former Navy pilot. He is one of the founders of America West Airlines

If you have traveled with the airlines within the past year, you know that air travel has become a miserable experience. The five largest American carriers are experiencing labor problems, contributing to delays. United Airlines’ TV ads carry an apology for its bad service. Even apart from holiday jam-ups, cancellations and disruptions are such a problem that special committees have formed in Washington to try to find solutions.

These days I am embarrassed to tell people that I am a former airline executive because it invites an unpleasant response. Long gone are the days when pilots and flight attendants were universally admired. Now these good and loyal people are harried and overwhelmed, like bus driver Ralph Cramden. Recently, one airline outfitted flight attendants with wrist restraints to subdue enraged or intoxicated passengers. On Friday, a British Airways flight from London to Nairobi gyrated wildly for two minutes after a Kenyan passenger went berserk and took control of the cockpit before being subdued by crew members and passengers.

In the middle of all this, we have a major new development: Airbus Industrie, the European aircraft building consortium, has made the final decision to build the A380. Imagine two Boeing 747s, one on top of the other, with a wing and a tail large enough to handle the extra mass, and you have the A380. This behemoth is a triple-decker designed to carry 555 to 800 passengers (depending on how an airline configures seating) at an amazing nonstop range of 9,200 miles.

The A380 is going to have a major impact on the airline industry and on cities like Los Angeles, which will have to accommodate it at their airports. Like the elephant that sleeps with the mouse, this giant of an airplane will affect everyone.

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Pilots, who refer to the 747 as the queen of the fleet, are looking forward to the A380 because pilots’ wages are keyed to the weight of the airplanes they fly. But flight attendants will probably hate it because they will have to contend with all those extra people for longer times and distances. Air rage incidents could increase, with some concourse rage thrown in.

Airbus’ decision to bring out the A380 is driven by the demand for air travel, which is expected to triple in the next 20 years. The A380 is a first step in figuring out how to meet the demand. Boeing’s chairman already has stated that it may build a competitor aircraft by modifying the 747.

Looking back to the 1970s, before the U.S. deregulated its airlines, the largest American airlines had about 100 airplanes in their fleets, and these were typically flown half-empty. Today, those fleets have swollen six times and the airplanes themselves are larger and usually full. A number of airports, such as New York’s La Guardia, are past their limits. Obviously, we need something like the A380.

On the other hand, giant planes will bring new problems. Just imagine how long the lines will be to get on and off an A380 with perhaps 700 fellow passengers. We’ll have twice as many people connecting to twice as many airplanes. Put five or six of these super-jumbos onto one concourse and you have some serious crowds to handle. Add to that the congestion in the surrounding parking lots, access roads and freeways.

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In Los Angeles, LAX airport access roads like Lincoln and Sepulveda boulevards already are overwhelmed, and that’s not counting traffic from the huge apartment complexes being built on these roads. Mass transit could help, but who would pay for it? Where could mass transit lanes or parking lots be constructed?

Yes, there is a great deal of unused concrete in nearby military airfields that could be used to relieve the congestion at our overburdened commercial airports. Here in Southern California, there is El Toro in Orange County and two former bases in the Inland Empire. In fact, virtually every major commercial airport has a former military airfield reasonably close to it.

But in every case, NIMBY (not in my back yard) is in operation, and neither the state nor the federal government has authority to convert these former military runways to commercial use; control over airports is a city and local matter. This is something that clearly should be rethought. Perhaps it is time to give the federal government the sole power to plan, control and manage our commercial aviation infrastructure and our air transportation system.

We soon will all see that airport usage and other related airline infrastructure matters are antiquated and nearly broken because control and oversight is too diversified. The elephant will sleep with the mouse, but it’s about time the mouse woke up.


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