A Much-Improved Airport Experience

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

Principato to Congress: "we’re certainly not going to go out and pound on the locked airplane door and go, ‘Let me in! I got pizza!'" (Drawing courtesy of The New York Times)

Principato to Congress: "We’re certainly not going to go out and pound on the locked airplane door and go, ‘Let me in! I got pizza!'" (Drawing courtesy of The New York Times.)

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.

In Israel: Security Briefings, Holy Land Tours

I’m wrapping up nearly a week in Israel. This has been my first trip to Israel and I am proud that ACI-NA has organized this annual airport security field trip three years in a row and we will be coming again next year. The original plan was to write a blog every day or two, but as it turned out I wanted to leave the post honoring Bill DeCota up top as long as possible. 

We just received a briefing on counter-terrorism to wrap up the official part of the visit. We are now on a bus heading north to Caesarea, which is filled with history dating to Roman times and is on the Mediterranean coast. 

Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock

Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock

We began in Jerusalem with a series of briefings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israeli Security Agency. We got a great sense of the political situation in this part of the world. While we were at the ministry, former Sen. George Mitchell was also there for a series of far more important sessions. 

Sunday afternoon we visited Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial and museum. I’ve been to the museum in Washington, and have also visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. Yad Vashem is a unique experience. One can readily see that the Nazis kept extensive records of what they did; they wanted everyone to eventually know. How anyone can deny it, well it is hard to understand. 

The Wailing Wall or Western Wall

The Wailing Wall or Western Wall

Monday we spent much of the day at Ben Gurion Airport hearing about and viewing security measures taken there. One is really struck by the common sense approach to risk management. The approach probably doesn’t transfer directly to America. The idea that we need a common sense approach to risk management, that various agencies should coordinate while also respecting clear lines authority and, importantly, the all this must be done with an eye to customer service and facilitation of travel; these are ideas and concepts we can apply much better. 


The room of the Last Supper

The room of the Last Supper

That afternoon, we toured the old city of Jerusalem. This was one of the great thrills of my life. Standing in the room where the Last Supper was held, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the spot where Jesus was crucified, walking THE stations of the cross, seeing the tomb of David, praying at the Western Wall and seeing the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock; that was a thrill that is hard to describe. We walked through all four quarters:  Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian. 

On Monday, while we were doing this, the whole nation was focused on, and grieving for, the death of Asaf Ramon, the young son of Ilon Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, who was killed in the Columbia shuttle

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

disaster. Young Ramon was killed in a training accident. So sad. 

On Tuesday, we moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and returned to the airport for a further tour, followed by a day and a half of visits with various Israeli companies who are building, and in some cases pioneering, various security and airport operational technologies. 

We also had a visit to the Defense Ministry for an interesting meeting. One thing you really notice here is how many very young women are seen in military uniforms. We have young women in the military in the U.S. of course, but not to the extent here where the service requirement is universal. 

This is an incredible place, and I will make sure I have more time to really experience more of the country and its people.

Remembering William R. DeCota

I arrived in Israel this morning and am writing from my hotel room overlooking Old Jerusalem. But my thoughts are thousands of miles away.image001

Bill DeCota, a real giant in the aviation world, and Aviation Director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey passed away this weekend.

Bill was one of the most passionate people I ever met. He was passionate about his airports, about aviation and about the team he had assembled at the Port Authority. He was passionate about the community in which he lived and worked, and he was passionate about his friends.

Bill was among the smartest, most creative people I ever met. And he was surely the most energetic. He almost single handedly put together a nationwide coalition(every state is represented) to broaden the political push for NextGen. If we do end up truly modernizing air traffic control we will owe a debt to Bill.

I always loved talking to Bill. It would be entertaining, it would be useful and it would be memorable. You had to be prepared when you dealt with Bill, he raised your game. I even enjoyed it on those occasions when he told me I needed to do something better than I had been doing it.

I began by mentioning that I am in Jerusalem, part of the Holy Land. I will say a prayer for Bill here. Of thanks for having known him, of gratitude for having been influenced by him, and for the soul of a man I will never forget.

Please share your remembrances  of Bill in the comment box.

Bill DeCota. RIP.

Remembering Sept. 11

I’m at the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. The Miller Center has gathered 50-60 experts on all modes of transport to talk about how we build the transportation system of the future, in a time of growing deficits and reduced federal financial resources. 

pentagon 9-11 memorial

Sept. 11 Memorial at the Pentagon. (Photo by Amanda McLean.)


But, this being September 11, we were reminded this morning by former Governor Gerald Baliles, Miller Center Director of the 2001 attacks and we were given the opportunity to recognize the great work that day of former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who is in attendance here today. 

Because of Norm’s quick work, and that of so many at the FAA, including the air traffic control workforce, thousands of planes were safely brought to the ground that morning. They deserve our lasting gratitude. 

What happened that day will never be forgotten by anyone, and the experience is seared into those of us who were in New York or Washington that day. 

In the immediate aftermath, the aviation system was closed down for several days. The skies were eerily silent. In the years since, so many in industry and government have worked to keep that from happening again. 

We must remember that the purpose of aviation is the movement of people and products. We must also realize that vigilance will always be required to keep the system safe and secure and working efficiently. 

I think all of us would agree that the screening process has improved greatly, and I appreciate the work TSA and its people do every day, even those days when I don’t agree with everything they do. 

I have an appreciation for all that goes into the gathering of intelligence that stops attacks before they can even form, and for the fact that much of that is gathered at some risk to people who work hard to gather it. 

There is a lot of work that goes into preventing a repeat of Sept 11, 2001, and a lot that goes into keeping the system running safely and efficiently. 

I am proud to be part of an airport industry that has really stepped up to the plate these past years, and to work with so many in the government, airlines and others who share that commitment.

Greetings from Saskatoon

I can’t remember the last time I visited a place that was more hospitible than this. Bill Restall, the airport director up here and a member of the ACI-NA board invited Debby McElroy and me up here to meet with his board. 

We were supposed to fly to northern Saskatchewan on Monday but the weather up there was bad and we couldn’t go. It was too bad, it is supposed to be beautiful up there, and very unspoiled. 

We spent the time touring the city, including some Saskatoon berry pie and a visit to the Diefenbaker Center, the library and museum dedicated to Saskatchewans only Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker. The museum is said to be based on the Harry Truman museum, including the fact that Diefenbaker and his wife are buried on the grounds. 

Diefenbaker grave site.

Diefenbaker grave site.

Today we met with the board, prior to that I gave a speech to about 100 business and government leaders. I talked about the importance of airports as engines of economic growth and that the days of viewing them as mere facilities are over, though airlines are making a coordinated, worldwide effort to turn back the clock. This is an important point and I will have much more to say about that in the future.

On the road to Saskatoon via Notre Dame

I’m writing from Saskatoon, the second stop on a two week travel fast that will take me to, or through, 4 countries and 7 different beds (including my own for one night!) 

The first stop was South Bend, Indiana, to see Notre Dame play Nevada. I flew to O’Hare with my son, rented a car and drove to South Bend. The plane had a large number of Notre Dame fans on it, and judging by the comment from the woman at the rental booth, a lot of Hertz‘s rentals that day were headed to South Bend. 

We first visited the Notre Dame bookstore, which is the first or second most visited tourist attraction in Indiana (seriously). The place was packed, some of them there to see Dick Vitale sign his book

We spent the rest of the day touring a campus that has changed greatly since I left 31 years ago but remains the most beautiful campus in America. We tried to go to the Notre Dame-North Carolina womens soccer match, but it was sold out, a far cry from the dozens who sometimes would come see us play when I was on the first varsity soccer team there (we got hundreds a few times!) 

My name on the wall where all Notre Dame monogram winners are listed.

My name on the wall where all Notre Dame monogram winners are listed.

The highlight Saturday was the game of course. Eigthty thousand people attend those games, almost all of whom (except students) travel from some distance. I’ve written about this before, it is so much fun to see airports filled with sports fans traveling to or from games. Even the day after the game — today O’Hare was filled with folks wearing Notre Dame gear. 

It is always more fun when you win, of course, and we did 35-0. Having my son along made it special. 

Being able to travel so freely is truly one of the blessings of liberty we so enjoy in this country. The woman in front of me who attended her first ever Notre Dame game and who was in tears at being able to fulfill a lifelong dream would surely agree. 

I hope some of those folks who traveled to South Bend (or to Ann Arbor or Columbus or Gainsville or Knoxville or East Lansing or St Louis or Charlottesville, or any of the other places college football was played this past weekend) will appreciate that and will feel free to disagree whenever someone says that, in a tough economy, travel is something we might perhaps be able to do without.

The value of face-to-face meetings and traveling

I recently saw an article in the Harvard Business Review (not my usual reading, but we have some smart people here at ACI-NA who do read it) about the value of face-to-face meetings (full story or executive summary) in the conduct of business.  It brought to mind an earlier post decrying the fact that some governments and businesses are not only cutting back travel but also putting certain communities on some sort of banned list. 

Anyone who has traveled for business knows two things:  face to face contact cannot be duplicated over the phone or on a computer; and, the glamour of business travel is way overstated. 

The fact is that travel for business is hard work; there is time away from home and family and a need to play catch up when you return.  But because this is not easy to explain, business travel gets a bad rap. 

I will add more than 100,000 miles to my frequent flier accounts this year, almost all of it for business.  I think about what was accomplished on those trips, and it was worth every mile and every penny. 

I live in the Washington area and because I am traveling so much for business this year and because we did have a family trip to Hawaii to celebrate our sons’ graduations, I decided to stay relatively close to home this August when I took some time off.  But I didn’t stay AT home, and found a lot of great things to do — things you should consider doing if you travel here. 

President Lincoln's Cottage at the Old Soldier's Home in Washington.

President Lincoln's Cottage at the Old Soldier's Home in Washington.

I already wrote about visiting family at the Jersey Shore and visiting the grave site of Grover Cleveland (also sort of a family trip, he is a distant relation of my wife and sons).  I went to the Newseum here in Washington, we spent hours there and I highly recommend it.  Lincoln’s Cottage at the Old Soldier’s Home is an undiscovered gem here in Washington; this is where Lincoln spent a quarter of his presidency and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.  Speaking of Lincoln, I also visited the newly renovated Fords Theater and Lincoln Museum.  This has always been a favorite of mine, and it is better than ever now. 

I also managed to attend three Washington Nationals games.

We took a trip up I-95 and visited Nemours Mansion and Gardens in Wilmington, Del.  Well worth the trip.  We then went to Lancaster, Pa., (a little more than 2 hours north of Washington) and visited James Buchanan’s grave site and his home, Wheatland.  You can learn about it on Lancasterhistory.orgBuchanan was probably our worst president, it is hard to argue otherwise (Franklin Pierce might give him a run for his money, and we had these guys back to back – thank God we had Lincoln come next!).  But his home is one of the best such sites I have ever visited, well worth it.  His grave proved difficult to find and visit, but I did get there and have now visited 20 of the 38 presidential grave sites. 

I don’t know if we will have been able to change some peoples’ minds about the value of travel, whether for business, pleasure or educational benefit.  But it is up to us in the travel industry to try.