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Why Is Holiday Travel So Hellish?

Aired December 21, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: The already annoying delays and cancellations are turning winter wonderland into holiday hell. Just today, Delta canceled 20 percent of its flights out of its Atlanta hub. Travelers are frantic for information, overloading airline phone systems and poring over weather maps.

Indeed as special holiday gift to you, CNN meteorologist Chad Meyers is online right now to answer your travel/weather questions at We hope you're not traveling during the show. So, buckle in for a bumpy ride as we debate who's to blame and what to do? Would government intervention help or hurt? Can anything improve holiday travel or should you just down some eggnog and fa-la-la-la -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Eggnog. Heavily spiked eggnog. That's my answer to everything. Mr. Secretary, good evening. Good to have you back on CROSSFIRE.


PRESS: I just want to state for the record you now represent some air industry clients, including one major airline. We will not hold that against you, and we know you're not hear tonight speaking for them, but from your experience as transportation secretary -- I fly a lot. And I would like to fly, but at the same time I find that the service is getting worse and worse, not better and better.

Let me just show you some figures that you will not find startling, perhaps. These are the delays in the month of October 2000 at some of our major airports. The number of flights delayed. You see it up the screen: La Guardia, almost 52 percent; San Francisco International, 42 percent; L.A., 41 percent; Phoenix, 37 percent; San Diego, 32 percent; Las Vegas, 32 percent; Boston, 31 percent.

I mean, Jim, that is just unacceptable for the airlines to have such a dismal performance, isn't it?

BURNLEY: It is unacceptable, and, you know, the numbers you just put up are delay numbers and those are driven by three factors, I think, that are important. As we all know, there have been a lot of labor actions by union members as well at some of the major airlines. That's contributed, but those are problems that we hope are transient. We hope that that does not become a pattern. There are very serious fundamental underlying problems, and they're that the U.S. government can help on. They're trying to make progress in one area, and that's we need more airports. We need more runways. We need more gates. That infrastructure is stretched to the outer limits.

The other area which we really need for new the Congress in the Bush administration to focus on is the air traffic control system. It's also stretched to the outer limits. It's safe, but the way they keep it safe is the traffic builds and builds and they fall further behind as they slow everything down, and that's a very serious problem and the U.S. government's got to address that.

PRESS: Well, let me suggest that also one of the problems that you didn't mention is that with deregulation, the airlines now can schedule as many flights, basically, as they can get out there and they're squeezing too many flights in the same amount of space, on the same limited runways with the same limited amount of crews and it bound to fall apart and it does every day. So isn't that an argument to go back regulation?

BURNLEY: Regulation would be the worst possible alternative, and the reason is all those flights are out there because of all of us and your viewers want to fly. We've got over 20,000 flights a day going through the air traffic control system. We need to grow infrastructure on the ground at the airports, in the air, the air traffic control system -- we need to manage that air traffic control system very differently so the airlines can take us where we all want to go. But to go back to the days of regulation, to reduce flights would be huge disservice to the traveling public.

MATALIN: Let me pick it up there, Paul, because since the 1978 deregulation, well it was only airlines that were deregulated and still the airline, the aviation infrastructure, the air traffic control and the airport capacity is still under bureaucratic control.

The computer language system for air traffic control was written in the '60s. Why should airlines be blamed for this archaic aviation infrastructure?

PAUL HUDSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, AVIATION CONSUMER ACTION PROJECT: Well, the airlines really are the major part of problem right now. What we're seeing is a by-product of too much deregulation. I would analogize it to having a major intersection with no stop signs and no traffic lights. Safety, no one argues that that should be deregulated. Scheduling...


BURNLEY: You mean regulated. Safety regulated?

HUDSON: No one argues it should be deregulated. It's presently regulated. But, for example, one of the -- two legs of deregulation. One was to deregulate air fairs, and the other was to deregulate scheduling. There is no control the government has now over scheduling. As result, we have airlines scheduling sometimes a dozen or more flights to leave at the same time, knowing full well that they cannot all take off at the same time. We need at the very least truth in scheduling. We propose that regulation to the DOT along with some other things.

But from our point of view, the major problem we have today is not an overload of the system. It's not too much regulation. It is the revenue policies and scheduling policies of the airlines that have caused the present crisis that we see in last two or three years.

BURNLEY: But Paul, how do your members -- you represent passengers -- how do your members get ahead if we tell the airlines to cap flights and then reduce flights? Don't you leave people literally without travel alternatives when you do that?

HUDSON: Well, we're not talking capping flights. Initially, we're talking about providing people with accurate scheduling information. For example, we have now about 4 percent of the flights are late 80 percent or more of the time. These flights are late day in and day out. They are not just chronically late. They are deceptively scheduled. Those flights need to be discontinued and rescheduled accurately. We believe if the public is armed with correct information, they will naturally shy away from the overcrowded times which are causing enormous back-ups at the major congested airports.

MATALIN: You're saying the airlines are purposely being deceitful to passengers? I mean...


HUDSON: They admit it.

MATALIN: ... I fly as much as Bill does, and I find their updates almost annoying in 10 minute and 15 minute and 20 minute intervals. I don't need to know as the thing is inching up to the gate. So, they purposely are deceitful.

HUDSON: There's a whole series of financial incentives the airlines have not to be fully truthful with the passenger. Number one, the airlines will freely tell you that if they scheduled their flights truthfully, they would lose customers because if people want to leave at 8:00 and they schedule their flight at 8:30 because they know that's when it can get off, they feel they'll lose customers. So, they lie and they say we'll all leave at 8:00. That's wrong, and that's something the government needs to regulate.

PRESS: I want to ask you about another kind of lie because I do believe the airlines lie. I think I've been lied to, and everything is anecdotal, but I'll give you my latest horror experience.

Last week I went out to Columbus, Ohio. I was due back here at 4:00 so I could do a show. Missed the show, ended up, because we couldn't land at Dulles. We were almost at Dulles, circled, circled, circled and then they said, we had to turn and go back to Columbus. While we're circling, I suggested that maybe we could land at National if Dulles was or maybe we could land at Baltimore, and the pilot came on and said that every airline in the whole region had the same fog problem.

You know what? That was a lie. I mean, I landed at National about four hours later. Now, wasn't it a truth that they just wanted that equipment at Dulles. When they couldn't get it at Dulles, they took it back to Columbus and rest of us were just screwed? They do that.

BURNLEY: I don't know how, Bill, you can sit there and say that because four hours later there was no fog at National that there wasn't fog at the time the pilot said there was fog. You have to ask somebody who was on the ground at National four hours earlier, but I do think that the airlines...


PRESS: Just suspicious.

MATALIN: He is conspiracy minded, Mr. Secretary.

BURNLEY: Well, let's be clear about suspicion versus fact. I do think there is a real problem that the airlines have been trying to address because a year ago the U.S. government told them, in no uncertain terms, that you have to be truthful with passengers.

You have got to give them frequent information to the point of irritation, and when you walk into an airline terminal today, particularly at the hubs, you can see it visibly. There are new sign boards. They are trying very hard to get the pilots to make more announcements. But it's not perfect. It's imperfect. They've made progress.

Where we haven't made progress is straightening out an air traffic control system that's getting ever further behind and I think Paul's solution is fundamentally anti-passenger and anti-consumer. If too many people want to fly at 8:00 for the capacity of an airport, then maybe we ought to expand the capacity of airport, not tell those people to stay home.

HUDSON: That's nice in the long-term, but over next ten years we're not going to have anything that is going to change the current situation. At best within three years, we'll be putting in about one runway every six months in the whole U.S.

But Bill, I think you put your finger on another major reason, whether it's lies or misinformation, but when we had regulation, we had a system called reliever airports, which meant that if had you, say, three major airports in a metropolitan area and you couldn't land it at the first one, you would be rerouted to the second one and perhaps a third. But that system was abandoned with deregulation.

One of the -- one of the points that we...

PRESS: But that doesn't make sense then. BURNLEY: It makes sense that we still do it.

PRESS: I'm sorry...

HUDSON: ... we feel we need to...

BURNLEY: It's just not -- not factually correct to say it was abandoned. I'm sorry, it hasn't been abandoned.

HUDSON: It's been abandoned, because the reliever airport system to work required that the major airports share revenue with the minor airports, and they won't do that anymore.

Right now, if you're scheduled to go into Dulles or LaGuardia and that for whatever reason is not available, you'll be held on the ground if you're not already in the air, and after a while your flight will be canceled, even if the other airports are clear.


PRESS: We're going to have to take a break. There are a lot more issues. We haven't even touched lost luggage yet, to see how much more we have to get to. And we will, when we come right back.

By the way, your lucky night tonight. Tonight, you get your chance to debate me online. Yes, I'm offering myself up to all of your probing questions and Christmas greetings.

You can join me in our chatroom at right after the show.

And so are you expecting grandma home for Christmas? Don't count on it, she may not make it if she's flying.



Holiday Day Travel

How many people are expected to travel by plane this holiday season?

A record 39.6 million passengers.


PRESS: 39.6 million, wow! Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Don't set that extra place at the table for grandma yet, she may never get there. Instead, she might spend Christmas at the airport, or worse yet, on the tarmac: you know, free turkey, free drinks, but no takeoff.

So if more people are flying, ticket prices are sky-high, and airlines are making so much money, why is service so poor and what can we do about it? We're dissecting air travel tonight with our guests, Jim Burnley, former secretary of transportation under President Reagan, and Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project -- Mary.

MATALIN: Well, first of all, I want to take issue with service is so poor. Do you know now, why, you can get designer pajamas on planes? You can get pedicures, manicures, wine-tasting lessons...

HUDSON: Maybe you can, Mary, but most of the passengers in coach are lucky to get...

PRESS: Not on Southwest airlines, you can't, I'll tell you that. You're lucky if you get a bag of peanuts.

MATALIN: Well, they've outlawed peanuts, because you politically correct people, so many of you are allergic to them. OK, here's the big question, if we could broaden out a little bit: the government versus consumer-driven improvement.

Since the passenger bill of rights threat, which didn't happen, but the following did happen: The airlines responded to that threat and to consumer complaints. They now offer you -- they have to offer you, they do offer you -- the lowest possible airfare up front. The luggage comes out faster. Fewer pieces are lost and they're retrieved quicker. This is my personal experience as well.

We are kept abreast of these -- and the boards are better -- of delays and cancellations. You get e-tickets, you get curbside check in, American Airlines has more legroom. These are all the results of consumer complaints, not government action.

HUDSON: Well, the consumer or the customer first program you're referring to was checked out in June by the inspector general of the DOT, and he found it was severely lacking. For example, in the area of offering the lowest-priced ticket, the DOT had to warn the airlines that they had to mention this little thing called a Web site, which you might get a lower ticket. Virtually none of them were doing that.

And the final report comes out this month, and I expect we're going to find that there's been not only no improvement, but there's been some deterioration in the last year.

MATALIN: Just as a general concept, if the government gets involved, it is just sort of not just anecdotally, but historically true that what consumers prefer most in travel is cost and convenience. And government intervention, by definition, rise costs, because the airlines would pass along the cost of compliance to the consumers, and there's not a good record of convenience and efficiency when the government reaches in to a private market like that.

What's the history that government would improve airlines as opposed to focusing on what we were talking about earlier, improving an archaic aviation infrastructure?

HUDSON: Well, for example, we have right now, we have no government regulation. Not only -- none over scheduling. We have none over reserves.

We could have a completely deregulated banking system with no reserves, and we had that in the 19th century, with disastrous results. There are certain minimal, reasonable regulations, whether they are traffic lights and stop signs, reserve requirements that should be required for airlines as well as banks.

The main strategy for increasing capacity in the 1990s was to use larger airplanes. That's now been circumvented by deregulation, because the airlines certainly can make more profit by using smaller planes with more frequent flights. That has really, we feel, exaggerated the delay crisis

BURNLEY: I've just got to say before you hit me with another one, Bill, you know, what you just said, Paul, is that the airlines responding to the demands of travelers are giving us smaller planes and more frequent flights. And again, I'm shocked to hear somebody who purports to represent passengers say, no, no, no, let's not care about what passengers want.

HUDSON: No, they're not -- they're not looking at...

BURNLEY: ... and what their desires are. Let's have the U.S. government tell the airlines what size aircraft to fly and what the schedules will be. I just don't think that will work in the passengers' interest.

HUDSON: The reason we're using smaller airplanes is not because of consumer surveys. It's because profit models show that you can make more money that way. This is bottom-line-driven. This is not service-driven.

BURNLEY: Well, it's also because you can't fill a 737 three or four times a day at Dubuque. You can fill one of the new regional jets, and you can give them good air service that they could not have before.

PRESS: Let me jump in here if I may. I just want to point out -- Mary's talking about some of the conveniences of the airlines. Sharper Image is now selling something they call the airline survival kit. It has a pillow, an air mattress, and two long novels in it. I mean, it sort of gives you an idea of what most people expect when they go to fly.

But let's talk about this airline, this passenger bill of rights, which was proposed by Senator McCain and some others. I mean, I don't think it was so draconian. What it said was -- let me just point out four things -- that passengers should be informed when a flight is oversold, that lost luggage will be delivered within 24 hours. They would tell consumers all the available fares, lowest as well as the highest fare, and maybe what fares they could get if they went online. And also they'd be notified when there are delays and told why there are delays.

I mean, why did the industry fight that? What's wrong with that?

BURNLEY: Well, the industry didn't fight it and, in fact, they agreed to go ahead and do it immediately. And we have an agreement...

PRESS: Yes, but...

BURNLEY: ... that has been in progress and, again, I guess Paul is very prescient, he can tell us what an IG report that hasn't been issued is going to say.

I don't know what it's going to say. I do know that, on the various issues you just mentioned, Bill, the airlines are doing better today than they were doing 12 months ago. They're not perfect, but they're moving in the right direction.

And what's troubling about this whole discussion is, we did touch earlier on the infrastructure issue, but that's the fundamental problem. We're talking about irritants and we're talking about things that do need to improve. But unless the structure grows to handle the traffic, this problem is going to get a lot worse, not better.

PRESS: Very quickly: President Clinton -- lost in the Florida recount shuffle was that President Clinton recently said, we're going to split the FAA into two parts: one dealing with safety issues, and one dealing with all these air-traffic control issues that we're talking about. It's not privatization, which some people are asking for -- but do you consider that both a good -- a step in the right direction, in terms of getting a handle on these travel problems?

BURNLEY: I consider it a half-step in the right direction, but it's not going to solve problem the problem in a fundamental way.

Twenty countries have separated air traffic control from the regulatory side because they came to recognize what we've got to come to recognize: air traffic control is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week business, and we're operating it like a government agency. Until you address that, like the Tony Blair government is doing in Britain, you can't fix this problem.

PRESS: Is that the way to go, Paul?

HUDSON: I would agree that it probably won't do any harm, but it's certainly not going to fix the problems that people are concerned about. It's going to do nothing in the short and medium-term for delays, and possibly not in the long-term.

This is a pet project of the airlines -- they want to privatize it, make it a corporate monopoly, which would probably drive up airfares and perhaps, not even help delays.

MATALIN: Well all right. Mr. Hudson, thank God we're all staying here for Christmas. No, you're...

PRESS: No, I'm on a plane!

MATALIN: We wish you the worst.

Secretary Burnley, thank you so much.

When we come back we'll discuss all the ways that we can afford Bill's holiday travels. Stay with us on CROSSFIRE.


PRESS: Now you can find out what's coming up in the CROSSFIRE. Sign up for a daily e-mail sent free of charge telling you what we are planning for that night. Log on to to sign up for your daily CROSSFIRE e-mail.

PRESS: And tonight's your chance to take me on. I'm ready for you; I bet you can't stump the exert. I'll be there at right after the show. Mary...

MATALIN: Expert on what? Let's just get...

PRESS: Well, airline travel, that's what it is...

MATALIN: Yes, we'll tune in for that.

PRESS: I'll take -- I mean, look, I do fly a lot and most of the time things work well. The two things that bother me: No. 1, I don't want to be lied to; and No. 1, I don't want to be kept in the dark. If they tell the truth and they give me information, I could stand anything.

MATALIN: I totally agree with that. I think there have been lapses in that and it's hard to -- sometimes hard to get the information. But I want to say, in this holiday season; last weekend when I took my girls to see my dad in Chicago -- their grandparents in Chicago -- all kind of -- you know, it was the hand of God, all kinds of weather problems. And after our fourth cancellation, when my two little Christmas girls in red coats threw themselves to the floor crying, the gate attendant actually told me the truth.

PRESS: Which was the plane wasn't going to land. But, you see, it takes too little girls to throw themselves on the floor while I'm circling over Columbus.

MATALIN: Thank you American Airlines for it, anyway.

PRESS: Good night from CROSSFIRE; I'm Bill Press.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow for more CROSSFIRE.

PRESS: And "SPIN ROOM" at 10:30...


PRESS: ... see you there.



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