I haven’t written for a while, since returning from Israel. We’ve been getting ready for our big annual conference in Austin, which is Oct. 10-14. As that also includes a board meeting there is much prep work involved.
However, two recent stories really caught my eye.
One is by Joe Sharkey of The New York Times. Joe really understands aviation issues from the passenger perspective and has a vivid way of writing about the passenger experience. He and I had a long phone chat recently; he was in Tucson, one of my favorite places. He had traveled down there
from Newark Airport, connecting in Houston. As he told me that day, and as he wrote in his column, he had always experienced the Houston Intercontinental Airport by running through it. This time, he had some extra time, found a great meal, some stores and amenities and discovered it really is a pretty good place.
We had a great discussion about what airports have done in recent years to fill the customer service void left by airlines who, because of cost cutting measures, or because they have reduced capacity, are less able or likely to get you promptly to your destination if your flight is cancelled or delayed; and less likely to find you a place to stay or something to eat. Airports have filled that void; our passengers are also our neighbors and we feel a responsibility. Airports do work with airlines on customer service issues, especially in cases of lengthy delays, but on the whole, airports have stepped in and assumed much responsibility (and not a little cost) for functions that were once performed by airlines. Joe’s article talks about that.
The second was an article about a fellow named Brendan Ross. Brendan has a little time off before he starts his job, so he bought one of those “fly all you can” passes on JetBlue that allows you to fly as much as you care to in a month. He will take 70 flights in 30 days, and is sleeping at airports every night. He is using “industrial strength deodorant” and washing his clothes in airport sinks. He’s got $30 a day for food, and is avoiding hamburgers and alcohol. He will even participate in a run that will be held at BWI, within the airport boundaries. And, of course, he is blogging and twittering.
Apparently, Brendan is married and Mrs. Ross is fully supportive, although not so much so that she is along for the whole ride.
Now, I don’t think many people want to have the full Brendan Ross Experience, but in a way it shows just how far airports have gone to make the experience comfortable for passengers, no matter what curve balls the air transportation system might throw at them. Airports were once just facilities; four walls, a ceiling and some doors, as one airline CEO once said to me. They are much more than that now; they are the primary focus of customer service initiatives, they are the folks who work to ensure a community has good and competitive air service. They ensure that airlines and passengers have the infrastructure they need.
There was a time, 30 years ago, when air routes and fares in the United States were dictated by the government. Airports were much more like mere facilities in those days; indeed as only 25 percent of all air routes had ANY competition in 1978, the notion that airports had to compete with one another, or work to ensure better air service options for their passengers, was non-existent. Some airlines are becoming nostalgic for the old days when airports just provided basic facilities and airlines called the shots. Some are pressuring airport leaders and others to cut costs so much that passenger service, upkeep of basic infrastructure, protection of safety, and the idea of competitive air service, might become a thing of the past. That could serve the short-term financial interests of a few airlines, but they do not serve the interests of the traveling public.
As Joe Sharkey and Brendan Ross have shown, the passenger still has an advocate in the airport. And, we will do all we can to keep it that way.