A rubbish journey, chronicled

Getting back from Atlanta required a great deal of patience and restraint; twenty three hours in the air plus another few in hanging out in airports with almost half of the journey time split amongst three American airports and one American airline – and there’s the challenge right there, the airlines are having it pretty hard right now, and it shows.

The cascading pressures of fuel costs (87% up Year on Year), security overheads and exchange rate woes are creating an unbearable downward pressure on all airlines, with the most visible, accessible staff coming under the greatest pressure of all. Not only do these frontline staff have to live in the shadow of job cuts, but they have fewer and fewer resources at hand to deal with ever increasing passenger numbers. As the cost to serve each passenger increases (30% increase Year on Year between mid 2006 and 2007) the greater the margin pressure on the airlines, who, in this highly competitive environment cannot increase fares outside of industry agreed fuel surcharges, so must instead cut sectors to improve yield by increasing % of occupied seat hours in tourist class. For crews, they are working on routes with more and more full planes and for ground crew they are checking in the same number of passengers but against fewer flights, making for longer queues and angrier customers.

I figure that it’s different at the front of the plane since a) business class occupancy has been high for a number of years and the business has long been scaled to cope, and b) the cost of declining satisfaction is too great in the upper class cabins to leave it unaddressed, meaning there is a direct correlation between occupancy, crew size and satisfaction, versus in economy where the relationship between satisfaction and occupancy is less obvious

Airport security is an area that passengers and airlines suffer together and the US is the worst of all, where the procedures have now become a running joke, just not a very funny one – long lines, sullen Government officials, shoes, watches and belts off, odd rules and regulations set against even odder parameters and inconvenient limitations and controls on the transportation of any sort of organic matter, firstly for security reasons, i.e. explosives suspended in liquid (hence the 100ml rule) as well as limitations on the transportation of foods for reasons of disease control – the entire process is just horrendous, and will only get worse.

Since January 2002 every passenger clearing security at a US domestic airport has had to remove their shoes, numbering 441million passengers at Atlanta Airport alone, and all because of the thankfully-failed actions of Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. As a useful example of why air travel for the masses will continue to get worse, consider this: Does Al-Qaeda think Richard Reid failed? There’s a pretty good chance they don’t.

Reality is that had he charged the flight deck and downed the plane, he would have killed all on board, but the long term impact of his actions would have been significantly less in global terms than they actually were. We know that terrorists use calculated disruption as a key weapon against their enemy, (especially financial markets, energy and currency) and against that measure, Richard Reid was in fact very successful. Same is true for the ban on liquids onboard, intelligence forces in the US seemingly uncovered a plot to suspend explosives in liquids, and an almost immediate world wide ban was imposed on liquid containers over 100mls as a result, even though no one has yet been able to create a device based on liquid-suspended explosives! Imagine if the same intelligence discovers a plot to disable crews and air marshals with razor sharp credit cards or trouser belts to whip crews to the same end, what new security steps will be imposed then, and why are they never mitigated by other means? The terrorist induced carnage isn’t in the air, it hasn’t been since September 2001, it’s on the ground, impacting the lives and economy of billions of people every single day, but especially those at the back.

As the world economy slides into recession, and airlines’ operations costs increase, the combined impact of greater passenger numbers and compounding security measures is making for an increasingly bi-polar travel industry; where the tourists are exposed to the raw end of the change, bearing the brunt of the increased occupancy and decreased service levels, and the Business and First Class passengers are further insulated from the hardship as a competitive selling point, with greater staff numbers, improved loyalty schemes and access to Fast-Track security with pre-screening set against your airline loyalty card. All this I can see resulting in a world where Business travellers have an entirely separate travel experience to the Tourists, travelling through dedicated Airport terminals to fly on business and first class only Boeing 787’s while the masses are shoe-horned onto 800+ seat Airbus 380’s.

Although as long as I continue to spend most of the travel hours at the pointy-end, I say bring it on!

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