Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Air Sickness

Ready for a vacation? You’re not alone.

According to a recent poll for the U.S. Travel Association, 59
percent of adults are planning a trip this year before July.

That means when you travel, you’ll be rubbing elbows and other body
parts with 138 million people.

While you’re contemplating that, think about this:

If you’re preferred mode of travel this summer is commercial air,
there will be some turbulence ahead.

For one thing, the air traffic controllers in this country seem to be
asleep at the wheel.

First, a controller at Reagan National in Washington, D.C. was
suspended for sleeping on the job, forcing two planes to land without

Then, the pilot of a medical plane was unable to reach the controller
on duty at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada. The pilot
decided to land after 16 minutes, citing concern over the health of a
patient he was transporting.

Other incidents of unresponsive controllers occurred in Miami, in
Lubbock, Tex. and at King County International Airport/Boeing Field
in Seattle, where a controller had fallen asleep once during a shift
on April 11, and twice during a Jan. 6 shift.

All of which should come as no surprise. Witness air traffic
controllers at major airports like LAX and Chicago and it’s like
watching someone juggling a couple dozen chain saws. No slip-ups

Add to the pressure the requirement that controllers are
expected to cover different shifts in a 24-hour operation and you
have a recipe for slumber.

Yet, controllers are not allowed a “cat nap” while on break. Federal
law, however, mandates sleep requirements for truck drivers.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a dubious show of leadership,
announced he was making sure controllers would get an extra hour off
between shifts to alleviate the problem. Which is like putting a
Band-Aid on a broken leg.

Then there are the ticket prices.

According to a story in the New York Times, carriers have already
increased their fares four times since the start of the year,
compared with only three increases for all of 2010. The airlines have
also raised some of their fees, imposed summer peak-time surcharges
and added hefty fuel surcharges on international flights.

It would be heartening if income from these increases was to be used
for something like providing cots for air traffic controllers.

But no, they are being driven by spiraling oil prices.
Why oil prices are increasing is subject to debate. But it’s
interesting they usually coincide with vacation season.

Next, there’s the airworthiness factor. Southwest Airlines recently
grounded its fleet of Boeing 737-300s for inspection after one of its
planes was forced to make an emergency landing recently with a
five-foot hole in the roof of the cabin.

Earlier, United Airlines grounded its fleet of 96 Boeing 757s after
discovering it had not completed safety checks on a critical
equipment upgrade required by federal aviation regulators.
Which followed a mandate to U.S. airlines to inspect 683 Boeing Co.
757 planes for cracks after a hole opened on an American Airlines
plane earlier this year.

You might want to bring some duct tape when you fly.

Finally, there’s the Transportation Security Administration, those
good hands people who, despite thousands of complaints, continue with
their body scans and “enhanced” pat-down policy.

Just this past week, the TSA drew fire for patting down a 6-year-old
girl in New Orleans, because something “was amiss” when she passed
through a body scanner.

Maybe Hello Kitty is on the no-fly list.

It’s unclear if the child was traumatized by the incident although
there’s a good chance she’ll feel an irresistible urge to join the
ACLU when she grows up.

Is there any good news out there?

Well, there’s a new set of passenger-rights rules proposed by the
Department of Transportation.

The new regulations, set to take effect later this year, would add
international flights to the current ban on keeping passengers
stranded on a delayed domestic flight for more than three hours.

The rules would also require airlines to reimburse passengers for bag
fees if their bags are lost, increase the compensation for passengers
who are bumped from flights, and require airlines to prominently
disclose extra fees on their websites.

In other words, basic passenger comfort and fairness in business
dealings are now a matter of law, the result of industry abuses.

Don’t lecture me about excess regulation.

Happy landings.

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