Friday, March 12, 2010

Global Warming/Cooling, Air Traffic Control, and the FAA Are Not a Good Combination

Global warming/cooling has struck again. Delta cancelled hundreds of flights a week ago Tuesday because of predicted snowfalls at Atlanta Airport.

We’re talking Atlanta – not Anchorage, Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Elmira, Fargo, Green Bay, Hartford, Ithaca, Jackson Hole, Kalamazoo, Laramie, Minneapolis, New Haven, Omaha, Pittsburgh, Quebec, Rochester, Syracuse, Toledo, Utica, Vermillion, or Zanesville. It’s not even Washington, D.C., which shuts down during 1-2 inches.

Rather than having passengers, planes, and crews stuck at the airport during a major storm, the airlines preemptively cancel flights. Unfortunately, I was one this go-around.

My wife asked a while back “Do the airlines ever phone anymore?”

The answer is definitely yes. Delta phoned at 11:00pm and 4:00am with the notifications. They also emailed.

Technology is great, but it doesn’t control the weather. Nor does it de-ice hundreds of airplanes at a warm weather airport like Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

I don’t miss the days of flying out of the Frost Belt during winter, cancelled flights, delays to de-ice, or clear the runways, and then shoveling your car out at the airport parking lot.

Heavy snows raked the Deep South just a few weeks ago. Philadelphia (90 inches) and other east coast cities have reached all time levels of winter snowfall, and the winter’s not yet over. D.C. and the rest of the east coast have experienced three monster storms this winter, beginning at Christmas Time. Winter crops have been wiped out in Florida.

NASA just reported that this has been a warm winter, one of the warmest on record. This winter in the Northern Hemisphere is not global warning. As Chico Marx once said in a famous skit “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” The Marx Brothers are a parable for the current global climate change debate.

It’s not just the United States. Europe, even Moscow, has posted record snows and temperature lows. New Delhi, India was at record lows a few weeks ago.

Airline travel is about to get more adventuresome because of the Law of Unintended Consequences even without winter.

Thousands of passengers have been stranded on the tarmac for hours because airlines refused to return to the terminal. Some airlines have acted really stupid in these situations.

Congress has been deliberating a Passenger Bill of Rights.

The Department of Transportation jumped Congress by promulgating its own Passenger Bill of Rights. Airlines must deplane passengers if they are on the tarmac for 3 hours or more, which seems reasonable.

The proposed penalty is $27,500 per passenger, not per plane, for failure to meet this requirement. That amounts to about $3.5 million for a fully loaded medium-sized jet. That’s one way to put a dent in the budget deficit.

Won’t happen! The revenue load for these flights will usually be well under $100,000, often approaching $50,000. The airlines understand economics.

They have threatened to respond by cancelling flights in advance if it seems that delays might ensue. The decision is basic economics.

The national, and international, consequences of widespread cancellations will be devastating to hundreds of thousands of passengers. Vacations, marriages, honeymoons, family emergencies will be disrupted.

The underlying problem is the primitive equipment used by the FAA in guiding air traffic. The agency has unsuccessfully invested billions in attempting to upgrade its old, deteriorating computer system. The passengers and airlines are paying for the FAA’s failures.

The situation is especially acute in the New York City area. LaGuardia and Kennedy are plagued with chronic delays.

The two biggest carriers at Kennedy are Delta and Jet Blue. The major runway at Kennedy will be shut down for months for maintenance and repairs. The efforts on air traffic nationally and internationally will be cascading.

Delta and Jet Blue have filed for waivers. If they don’t get them, expect more midnight calls from the airlines.

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