DOT Agrees, Enough is Enough

I saw the news the other day that the U.S. Department of Transportation had fined three airlines in connection with the stranding of passengers on a regional jet in Rochester, Minn., this past summer. 

DOT fined Continental, ExpressJet and Mesaba for the stranding at Rochester International Airport.

You might recall that I blogged about this incident when it occurred. What set me off then was not so much that it happened, not so much that mistakes were made, but more the fact that the airlines involved (the major carrier whose code was on the flight, the regional carrier that operated the flight and the regional carrier providing ground services) attempted to deflect all blame. Rather than accept responsibility, they attempted to blame the airport and TSA. Perhaps they figured no one would know the difference. This attempt to pass the buck infuriated me, and many others. As I wrote at the time, “This is bull.” 

Let’s be clear.  Mistakes happen. But what should never happen is the kind of shameless buck-passing that occurred after this incident. We can all do better, and we all make mistakes. I guess some figured that the press, the public and the politicians would just believe that it was the airport’s fault and TSA’s fault. And maybe one day they would have believed that. But those days are over. 

All of us involved in aviation must continue to do better by our passengers. Truth telling is a good place to start. I take no pleasure in seeing anyone fined, but I am delighted that DOT recognized what really happened. I hope the result is a re-doubled effort by all of us in the industry to make passenger service Job #1.

Reflecting on past Thanksgiving news conferences

It is a couple of days before Thanksgiving, a time when so many millions of people are getting ready to use the aviation system to visit friends and family. 

Before the economic meltdown, it seemed as if these holidays would just overwhelm the system. Today there is less worry about that, though there is worry that with so much capacity removed from the system that any travelers whose flights are cancelled or delayed for any reason might have trouble making alternative plans. 

Several times in recent years, I joined with the then-head of TSA Kip Hawley and Jim May, president of the Air Transport Association (ATA), for a pre-holiday news conference to talk about how the industry was ready for the influx of travelers and to answer questions on what we thought we’d face. 

In 2006, that news conference occurred in the context of new regulations on carriage of liquids and gels. A question about the status of cranberry sauce led to a fun exchange, and to TSA announcing that granny’s apple pie could be taken through the check point and was not a violation of the liquid and gels rules. I still sometimes think this was the most useful thing I’ve done in this job — enabling millions to enjoy their Thanksgiving pie! 

I am always thankful at this time of year for the aviation system and the role it plays it helping our country enjoy this important holiday. Since I am recovering from surgery, Jim May and I did not do our press meeting this year. But I should say that doing those events with him has been a real highlight of my time at ACI-NA. Jim is a great representative of his industry. He’s a worthy adversary when we disagree and a great partner on the more frequent occasions we can agree and work together. I’ve always been thankful to have someone like him at the helm at ATA. The fact that his wife is a big NY Giants football fan is an added bonus! 

I hope all of you have a great Thanksgiving!

Its time for the airlines to get beyond ‘just say no’

Let me begin by thanking all of you who have sent good wishes on my recovery from hip replacement surgery. So far, so good. 

There is a great scene in the movie Bull Durham where the Kevin Costner character is advising the Tim Robbins character on how to deal with the media. The advice amounts to just stringing clichés together, one after the other (“we just play them one at a time, I just want to help my team win, etc”). 

I thought about all this when I was looking at an article about the airline approach to air traffic control. 

You recall last week I wrote about the silliness of the airlines approach to new investment in infrastructure:  “do no harm.”. I just saw an article about their approach now to air traffic control:  “Just say no!” 

“Do no harm”. “Just say no”. What’s next?  “Its morning in America”?  “A chicken in every pot”?  “A return to normalcy”? 

“A Chicken in Every Pot” political ad and rebuttal article in New York Times, 10/30/1928

It is hard to avoid the idea that airlines just don’t want to see anything pass that would reauthorize the FAA, especially if it might result in better infrastructure on the ground or in the air. There is no rational reason to support inadequate infrastructure or outdated technology, but that becomes the result of the airline industry’s approach. I’ve seen it throughout my career, it is a constant strategy. I know there are many fine people in the airline industry who understand the limits of this approach and I hope they will succeed in moving the industry in a more constructive direction. Having worked throughout my career with good people from every sector of the aviation industry, it is instinctive to me to want to work together. I know we can do so, once we get past cliché as strategy. 

One final note, there was a great article in today’s Washington Post Travel section about Travelers Aid at the Washington-area airports. I recommend it highly.

Do No Harm

Just got home yesterday after having my hip replaced on Friday. Spent a lot of time in the hospital with doctors, nurses, therapists, technicians and others. People who do that for a living are real live saints in my book.

Medical professionals take an oath to “First, do no harm.” So, it has been especially ironic to me to hear airline executives and lobbyists mouth the words “do no harm” when they argue against investing in fixing, maintaining, upgrading, and expanding our aviation infrastructure. They said it over and over these past few weeks; it is clearly the new talking point.

First, I can’t figure out how failing to fix, upgrade and expand our infrastructure meets any definition of “no harm.”

Second, the airline talking point leaves out an important word:  “first”. The oath says “First, do no harm.” The oath then urges medical professionals forward in healing the patient. This is the part the airlines miss entirely.

If the medical profession used the airline approach to that oath, I’d guess hip replacements would never have been invented. Same with knee replacements and so on. We probably wouldn’t have organ transplants or any of the other things we take for granted.

The goal isn’t just to “do no harm.” The goal is to “FIRST, do no harm,” and then set about trying to improve the situation.

I must admit that the airlines seem disciplined with this new anti-infrastructure talking point. But they will leave us in the dark ages of aviation infrastructure and ensure that the patient never really gets better.

Thoughts before a short hiatus

I am going in for a long-awaited hip replacement tomorrow so I may not write again for several days. So, a few quick thoughts: 

iraqWhen we traveled back from Dubai earlier this week we flew over northern Iraq. It was hard to resist the temptation to keep looking out the window. North of the plane was mostly barren, though you could see the mountainous terrain in the distance that marks the border with Iran. South of the plane was the Tigris River that leads into Baghdad.  It was hard to avoid thinking about what was going on, and had gone on, just 7-8 miles below. I certainly had that in mind on Veterans Day. Words can’t express my appreciation for what our service men and women do in far-flung parts of the world. 

I’ve talked to a lot of travelers over the past few years and one theme that keeps coming up is the commitment to customer service by so many foreign airlines. We certainly experienced that on Emirates. And, gosh, getting scrambled eggs for breakfast in the Emirates lounge in Dubai — nice! 

Health care looks like it will be considered on the Senate floor soon. I really hope they can find floor time for FAA Reauthorization. 

My son Brian (the one we visited in Dubai) is growing a moustache in order to raise money for prostate cancer. If you are interested you can go to his blog, http://www.dubr1.blogspot.com/ there are links in his posts about our visit to Dubai and Sharjah and also in his post entitled “Movember.” 

Thanks to all who sent nice wishes about my sister. 

I will not be flying for a while, but once I recover sufficiently there will be plenty to say and I’ll be back.

Four days in Dubai

Sitting in the ridiculously spacious/comfortable Emirates Lounge at Dubai Airport. We wrapped up a wonderful four-day visit with our son. 

Dubai is unlike anywhere I have ever been. I thought I saw lots of construction cranes in Shanghai last year, but what you see here is hard to comprehend. Many projects have been halted for now, but there still is a lot of work underway. 

The hotel Burj al Arab

The world's second tallest hotel, Burj al Aab.

We visited some of the largest shopping malls in the world including one with a ski resort inside (seriously). We had tea at the Burj al Arab, a seven-star hotel. This is the place shaped like a sail that is featured in so many pictures of Dubai. We had a 27th floor view over the Persian Gulf and could see the series of islands that have been constructed off shore to resemble a Palm Tree and a map of the world (yes, you read that right!) 

We watched a beautiful fountain show at the foot of the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building. We also had a lot of really nice relaxed moments with our son including a nice meal at his favorite restaurant, Fuddruckers. And we rode the shiny new metro, just opened a month or so ago. 

Brian in Dubai

Brian Principato at Dubai's Fuddruckers.

We were also treated to a very nice tour of Sharjah, a neighboring emirate. Ghanem al Hajri, a former chair of ACI World, runs the airport there and arranged a tour for us. We saw his airport, the gorgeous campus of the American University of Dubai, Old Sharjah, and the glistening downtown. 

House in Dubai

Traditional Arab home in Old Sharjah.

Our son’s roommates are from Britain and South Africa and are very fine fellows. We met lots of nice people here from all over the world including a cab driver from Peshawar, Pakistan. His family is there and they have had multiple bombings there this past week and he had not heard from his family. He told us this as he drove us up to the Burj al Arab, quite a contrast. 

Now we are back at the Dubai airport about to board the Emirates A380 back to Toronto. Another experience hard to comprehend….

Remebering Bobbi Passavanti

Our industry is filled with many wonderful people and personalities. I’ve written about lots of them, usually airport directors, corporate CEOs etc. But what really makes this industry special is that there are so many others who don’t get written about as much but whose energy and passion makes every day, every event, something to look forward to.

Our industry lost one such person this week, Bobbi Passavanti of The Paradies Shops. 

bobbi-in-dubai-150x150

Bobbi Passavanti in Dubai as posted in the blog, Stuckattheairport.com

I met Bobbi not long after I took this job and she made an immediate impression. Not just because of the odd coincidence of her sharing a first name with my mother-in-law and a last name with the hospital where my wife was born (Passavant Hospital in Jacksonville, Illinois). The impression she made would have been just as lasting if her name had been Jane Smith. 

Bobbi was one of those people who made it their job to make sure everything was just right. While her title was director of communications, I don’t know what her formal job description said, but it might well have included this phrase:  “make everything you work on successful…..and fun!” There are never enough people like that. 

Amy Peters, our VP for Business Development, worked closely with Bobbi. I can’t improve on what she said when she learned of Bobbi’s passing, so I will leave it to Amy to sum up how we who worked with Bobbi at ACI-NA felt about her: 

“Bobbi was the embodiment of the customer service spirit of The Paradies Shops. She was unfailingly upbeat, always professional, a passionate advocate of her company and her industry, and a long time friend to, and partner with, ACI-NA.” 

Bobbi Passavanti. RIP

Reflecting on ACI World meeting

A few final thoughts from Kuala Lumpur as I wait for my flight: 

Jim Cherry, CEO of Aéroports de Montréal, who chaired ACI World these past two years with unusual distinction, will give way to Max Moore-Wilton from Sydney, Australia.

Max Moore Wilton

Max Moore-Wilton

Max is a worthy successor to Jim, both men of energy, vision, and (Jim’s favorite word) passion. Max has been vice chair these past two years and I look forward to working with him and with Angela Gittens to strengthen ACI World even further. Succeeding Max as Vice Chair is Yiannis Piraschis of Athens, Greece. Yiannis has been chair of ACI Europe the past two years and is another person who has done much to strengthen the global airport industry. 

The final day featured a panel on the uses of technology to improve customer service. Randy Walker, our former chair, is a pioneer in this area and gave a presentation. Other presenters included Catherine Mayer of SITA (someone with more energy than any two other people), Ad Rutten of Amsterdam and also the CEO of Abu Dhabi Airport, John Stent. 

Technology will one day mean a truly seamless trip through the airport (think about the benefit home check-in has already provided). I suppose security will be the final hurdle for technology to conquer for the truly seamless experience. 

I was on the final panel talking about airport sustainability and environmental initiatives. I reviewed ACI-NA’s environmental goals, climate change position and the results of the Sustainable Airport Guidance Alliance. I was literally the final speaker of the conference so tried to make my remarks as concise as possible. My main point:  aviation is the most environmentally responsible means for transporting people and goods ever devised, airports have a good story to tell but even so are always looking to improve even without government dictates, and this is one area in which we have a choice of either shaping the future or being shaped by it. 

Overall it has been a remarkable experience here. Tan Sri Bashir Ahmad and his team at Kuala Lumpur Airport did a fabulous job, as did Angela and her team. It is always so inspiring to be among the leaders of the world’s airport industry.

Defining the airport-airline relationship

Another day in the books in Kuala Lumpur and a big theme was the airport-airline relationship. 

A couple highlights: 

The CEO of Malaysia Airlines, Tengku Dato’ Azmil Zahruddin, says they will not respond to the downturn by “nickel and diming” their customers. Hard to imagine a U.S. airline CEO saying that. 

Malaysian

Malaysian entertainment at dinner in Kuala Lumpur.

Tan Sri Bashir Ahmad, CEO of Kuala Lumpur Airport makes the point that airlines miss the mark by focusing on airport charges (which are only about 4 percent of airline costs) rather than working with airports to reduce the airlines’ cost of operations, which would be much more important. We have had the same conversation with airlines in the U.S. Airport charges are more easily quantifiable, I guess; an easier way to keep score. But airlines miss out on improving and reducing the cost of their operations by focusing on the wrong things. 

Ad Rutten from Amsterdam talked about how they built a terminal to meet the stated needs of a specific low cost carrier. But passengers hated it and started booking away; it was also increasing costs in other less visible ways. The airline missed the forest for the trees. 

Jim Cherry, CEO of Aéroports de Montréal, chair of ACI World and one of the smartest people I ever met talked about the airport airline relationship. He reached back to a quote from President Kennedy’s first trip to Canada in 1961 about how geography had made the countries neighbors, necessity had made them allies. 

Kennedy said: “Geography has made us neighbors, History has made us friends, Economics has made us partners, And necessity has made us allies. Those who nature has so joined together, Let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.” 

Cherry said it was an apt description of the airport-airline relationship — though airlines are less willing to see airports as partners. As Jim put it about the relationship:  “Cooperation, Not Capitulation.” That about sums it up. 

The day finished with another awesome display of local culture in song and dance — and food!

Tourism transfers wealth to the have nots

Spent Monday morning at Batu Caves. It is an incredible site, enormous caves in a large cliff. Two hundred seventy-two steps to the top, with more after you get there. Lots of bats flying around and lots and lots of monkeys. 

monkey

Monkeys at Batu Caves.

Once you climb to the top you find Hindu temples inside. It is an impressive site and impressive experience. 

batu_cave

The Lord Murugan statue at Batu Caves.

The actual conference began last night with an opening ceremony and the opening of the exhibit floor (40 booths, companies from the U.S., Canada, Europe and, of course, all through the Asia-Pacific region. 

The conference sessions are officially underway today (the weekend was spent in ACI World board meetings). I’m listening now to Greg Duffell, President and CEO of PATA (Pacific Asia Tourism Association). It is an excellent presentation; and he has a lot to talk about given that this region is the world’s only economic hot spot.

Of all his points, two stand out for me. One, tourism is a major generator of wealth transfer from “haves” to “have nots”. Think about it, tourists have disposable income and spend it in places that flow to many folks who have much less income; people who work in hotels and restaurants, at tourist attractions and at stores and businesses.  These are people with much less income and they rely on the economic impact of tourism to support their families.  That’s why the inclination of some to denigrate tourism and travel in tough times really rankles, the ones who pay the biggest price are those who least can afford it. 

The other is that tourism, in tough times, relies on a cut rate model to stimulate traffic and business. Duffell said that this works fine if the recovery comes quickly and you can move away from cut rates before they put you out of business. But in slower recoveries, the cut rate model is dangerous. 

The overall mood here is good, but cautious. Much like we found at our North American conference three weeks ago in Austin 

More soon…