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US aviation failing? We've screwed ourselves

Posted by Patrick Smith  May 15, 2013 02:21 PM

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Our airports are terrible, and our airlines find it harder and harder to compete. We've done it to ourselves through shortsightedness, underfunding, and flyer-unfriendly policies.

In a CNN poll of 1,200 overseas business travelers who have visited the United States, a full 20 percent of them said they would not visit the US again due to onerous entry procedures at airports, including long processing lines. Forty-three percent said they would discourage others from visiting the US.

"The United States risks falling behind Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as the global aviation leader."
- Carol Hallett, US Chamber of Commerce counsel
In Air Line Pilot magazine

I'd say that battle was lost a long time ago.

The United States of America may have pioneered commercial aviation, but today the crossroads of global air commerce are places like Dubai, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Seoul, and Bangkok. These are the places - not New York or Chicago or Los Angeles - that are setting the standards. They have the best airports and the fastest-growing airlines, and they offer the most convenience for travelers.

Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok

Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok. Photo by the author

Some of their success is owed to simple geography. Dubai, for instance, is perfectly placed between the planet's biggest population centers. It's the ideal transfer hub for the millions of people moving between Asia and Europe, Asia and Africa, North America and the Near East, and so forth.

The government of the UAE saw this opportunity years ago, and began to invest accordingly. Today, Dubai airport is one of the world's busiest, and its airline, Emirates, is now the world's third-largest in terms of capacity. The book value of the planes Emirates has on order - to say nothing of the 200 widebody jets it already operates - exceeds the value of the entire US airline industry!

Not far from Dubai, Istanbul's Ataturk Airport is poised to become a similar mega-hub. Its hometown carrier, Turkish Airline, in addition to winning numerous service awards, now flies to more countries (94) than any other airline in the world.

There's not much we can do about geography. At the same time, there's no excuse for the US aviation sector to have fallen so far. We've done it to ourselves through shortsightedness, underfunding, and flyer-unfriendly policies.

Compare for a minute our air travel infrastructure to that of, say, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, or Germany. It's not even close. Our airports are substandard across a number of fronts; our air traffic control system is underfunded; Customs and Border Protection facilities are understaffed; airline passengers are groped, taxed, and hassled, to the point where, if that CNN poll is to be believed, millions of them will refuse to visit the country.

The government seems to treat air travel as a nuisance, something to be dissuaded, rather than a vital contributor of tens of billions of dollars to the annual economy.

And although our physical location may not be ideal as a transfer point, there are still plenty of travelers moving between continents who can and should be patronizing US airports and US carriers - if only we weren't driving them away.

For those traveling between Australia and Europe, for example, or between Asia and South America, the US makes - or should make - a logical transfer point. Why can't LAX, JFK, and MIA work the way Dubai, Hong Kong, and Amsterdam do?

Hell, we don't even try.

American airports simply do not recognize the "in transit" concept. All passengers arriving from overseas, even if they're merely transiting to a third country, are forced to clear customs and immigration, re-check their luggage, pass through TSA screening, etc. It's an enormous hassle that you don't find in most places overseas, where transit passengers walk from one gate to the next with a minimum of fuss.

Flying from Australia to Europe, for example, a traveler has two options: He or she can fly:

  • Westbound, via Asia (through Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong) or the Middle East (Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, etc.), or

  • Eastbound via the US West Coast (via Los Angeles or San Francisco)

Even though the distance and flying times are about the same, almost everybody will opt for the westbound option. The airports are spotless and packed with amenities; the connections painless and efficient.

To change planes at LAX or SFO, on the other hand, a passenger must stand in at least three different lines, be photographed and fingerprinted, collect and re-check his bags, and endure the full TSA rigmarole before slogging through a noisy, dirty, claustrophobic terminal to the correct departure gate.

Traveling between Asia and South America, it's a similar story. Europe to Latin America, same thing. Few passengers on these routes will choose to connect in the United States because we've made it so damn inconvenient. Heaven help the poor slob who tries connecting at JFK, which is broken up into eight completely separate terminals. In addition to each of the hassles just mentioned, switching between airlines requires that you leave the building completely and catch a train.

JFK Airport

We can only guess at how many millions of passengers our carriers lose out on each year because of all this.

To add insult to injury, airline tickets in America are taxed to the hilt. Overall flying is a lot more affordable than it has been in decades past, but if it feels expensive, one of the reasons is the multitude of government-imposed taxes and fees. There's an excise tax, the 9/11 Security Fee, the Federal Segment Fee, the Passenger Facility Charges, International Arrival and Departure Taxes, Immigration and Customs user fees, an Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service charge, and so on -- a whopping 17 total fees! Airline tickets are taxed at a higher federal rate than alcohol and tobacco. And now there's a proposal to double the security taxes.

Finally, you should know that the government-run Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank of the United States provides billions of dollars in below-market financing each year to carriers overseas, helping deliver hundreds of US-built aircraft at rates not available to our own airlines. For 2012, the total was $11 billion in funding for the export of 154 aircraft to 21 countries. This is one of the reasons Persian Gulf carriers such as Emirates and Etihad Airways have been able to expand so rapidly. US taxpayers are, in fact, subsidizing the growth of carriers that compete directly with our own. Ex-Im's assistance is helpful to Boeing, perhaps, but it gives foreign carriers a strong competitive advantage and undermines the health of the US airline industry.

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and author of the new book COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AIR TRAVEL
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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