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Terminal Chaos 511

Ben Rothke writes "While Terminal Chaos should be shelved in the current events or business section of a bookstore, it could also be placed in the modern crime section. After reading it, one gets the impression that the state of air traffic today could only come due to criminal neglect or mischief. If one looks at pictures of airline flights from the 1960s, you will see well-dressed passengers enjoying their flight. In 2008, barely a day goes by without an incident of air rage, from irate passengers in the terminal, to those in the air causing flights to be diverted. Today's airline traveler considers it a near miracle if his flight arrives on time with his baggage." Keep reading for the rest of Ben's review.
Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It
author George Donohue and Russell Shaver
pages 240
publisher Amer Inst of Aeronautics
rating 10
reviewer Ben Rothke
ISBN 978-1563479496
summary Fascinating look at the current state and problems with the US air traffic system
The reasons for the meltdown in the air traffic system are complex. The book names a number of reasons for today's chaos. Some of these include airline deregulation, multiple governmental agencies with no central oversight or responsibility, multiple corporate entities with conflicting agendas, an air traffic controllers union resisting change, a technologically outdated air traffic control system, and more.

While the public perception in the US is that somewhere out there, government officials are looking out for passenger's rights, the reality is there is no one looking out for them. Unlike their European counterparts, air travelers in the US have very few rights. This lack of passenger advocacy along with the other reasons has a huge impact on the economy, in addition to the costs that flight delays and cancellations cost U.S. travelers, which are estimated annually at over $3 billion.

Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It is a fascinating book. The authors show a number of ways to fix the current problems. While the book is part case-study, it is also part tragedy, given the tragedy is that Washington lacks anyone with the pragmatism, willpower and audacity to stand up to the unions and powers that be to fix the system. The book lays out in 7 concise chapters the problems, ringleaders, obstacles and challenges that brought us to the state that we are in today.

The authors sum it up best when they note that the distance from New York to Chicago is 635 nautical miles, and when flown by a piston-powered DC-6 with a cruise speed of 315 MPH over 50 years ago, the scheduled flight time was a little longer than two hours. Today, scheduled airlines fly Boeing 737 turbofans at 511 MPH, but book this as a 3-hour flight.

In chapter 4, the authors note that while some flight delays are the result of post-9/11 security issues, the main reason why flying has become so arduous is that the air transportation system, as it is now structured in the US, is untenable from a fundamental business point of view. The government regulated business model is unstable and irrational and planes are purposely overbooked, flights are cancelled for no publicly explainable reason, and no one will offer the flier a sound reason for why these events occur.

Both authors are professors at the Center for Air Transportation Systems research at George Mason University. The book quotes from research done there, which includes suggestions such as to use larger aircraft (something Continental is doing at Newark), along with other market mechanisms. Other research shows that slot exemption, weight-based landing fees and other issues combine to lead to inefficient use of airport capacity, especially as slot-controlled airports, such as O'Hare, Kennedy, Newark, LaGuardia and Atlanta.

In chapter 6, the authors take a no-holds barred approach to NATCA, which is the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. They view NATCA as a stumbling block to modernization, and an organization whose goal is to protect their members, over the public they are supposed to serve. They also question how NATCA gets away with constantly stating that the US air traffic control system is the safest in the world, when it is actually behind Europe when it comes to safety metrics (Europe has .032 hull losses per 1 million departures vs. .049 in North America).

Ultimately, the book notes that the air traffic control problems exist in the fact that there is a perfect storm of airlines, airports, government agencies (FAA, DOT, OMB, DHS), White House and Congress, all of which seem to believe that they don't have the responsibility to fix the problem. Each seems to be waiting for someone else to take charge.

Chapter 7 lists a number of practical ways in which the air traffic control system can be modernized. Some of the suggestions would require significant financial outlays; others simply require all of the parties involved to play nicely together.

Overall, Terminal Chaos is a landmark book, in that it cuts through the complexity of the air traffic mess, and clearly lays out the problem, and possible solutions.

It is a very well-written and extremely well-researched book. It does have a few slight errors. Most noticeably on page 73 when it says that Continental has been in and out of bankruptcy court, while the table on the next page shows that Continental has been out of bankruptcy court for over 15 years. Also, one of the travel tips the authors give is to have a traveler consider using a private aircraft out of smaller, less congested airports. That is indeed a good suggestion, albeit extremely costly, and not financially feasible for most of the flying public.

Terminal Chaos is a book that should be required reading for anyone involved in air traffic and aviation, from passengers to every employee at the FAA. The authors have innovative ideas that should be listened to and implemented; from holding the government decision-makers responsible, to realistic ways to modernizing the air traffic control system. The book is a fascinating overview of what goes on in the skies above us, and in the air traffic control towers around us.

Ben Rothke is the author of Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know.

You can purchase Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Terminal Chaos

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  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @01:17PM (#23937327) Homepage Journal

    The reason there are so many problems is that the cost is too cheap.
    The price per ticket isn't enough to cover the cost of doing business, so more and more items get cut.
    Boarding because a cattle car types of efficiency, service goes down, everybody becomes rushed, the aircraft become packed, and so on.

    Don't get me wrong, flying 1000 miles for 3 hundred bucks round trip is great, but lets not kid ourselves. If we want service to go back to the 1960s level of service, the costs should at least be as much as it was in 1960s plus inflation and fuel cost increases.

  • Security theater (Score:4, Informative)

    by A beautiful mind ( 821714 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @01:28PM (#23937489)
    If I'd be forced to guess I would say that the security theater methods actually increase violence on the plane, due to people getting annoyed and doing stupid things. Therefor this security measure might actually cost lives, instead of saving them.
  • by Tuzanor ( 125152 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @01:44PM (#23937765) Homepage

    First, nobody said get rid of the automobile.

    Also, high speed rail (300km/h) is already widely deployed in Europe and Japan. And time is where they do shine. I can go from Central Paris to Central London (465) in less than 3 hours. I can board the train 15 minutes before it leaves. To fly, it's an hour to the airport, plus I'd have to arrive at the airport 2 hours early, wait in 3 different queues (check-in, security, boarding) fly for an hour, arrive, wait for my luggage(at least half hour), and then an hour into the city.

    Obviously this is different going from NY to LA, but amongst denser areas of the US (north-east, california) this is feasible within 1000km distances.

  • by Plugh ( 27537 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @01:44PM (#23937781) Homepage
    ... what can be safely explained by bumbling bureaucratic government incompetence.
  • by mapsjanhere ( 1130359 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @01:48PM (#23937831)
    Actually it took 5 days in most cases, the SS United States did it in under 4 days in 1952.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @01:49PM (#23937841)

    Yes because there is no place for a middle ground.
    I'm french and our HSR network works fairly well. Japan has an extensive HSR network as well. And in Europe, Spain has a very ambitious plan to build HSR everywhere. Germany and Italy also have HSR.

    HSR brings two things: no security checks on departure, correct time on medium distance (300 miles to 500 miles). Better regularity than planes: a train on time is not news, a plane on time is. Comfort is better in a train (even french TGV which are the less confortable of HSR are better than planes). Luggages are not weight limited in trains (provided you are reasonable)
    and you don't play surplus on them. You can use electrical appliances in trains and even your cell phone. And the best things about trains (which is not inherent): train operators will sell you a one way ticket at a reasonable price. Another advantages (maybe not so much in US) is that trains leave you at the center of the city not 10km away.

    Bording trains is faster: 8 doors for 540 passengers compared to one door for 200 passengers.

    So yes, HSR tracks are expensive but roads are too, and airports are too. They're all funded by your taxes too. Now HSR is not good for 2500 miles but they should do the tricks for intrastate travel

  • by Ziest ( 143204 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @01:54PM (#23937901) Homepage

    Taking a boat across the Atlantic or Pacific is right out; even when there was still regular passenger service, it took more than a month to cross the Atlantic.

    I'm not sure where you get your information but a transatlantic crossing today is about 6 days. Have a look at My parents are planning to take the Queen Mary 2 from New York to Southampton next summer and the Cunard website says 6 days. If I remember right a transatlantic crossing in the 1890's took 8 or 9 days. Look up RMS Titanic on Wikipedia. She left Southampton on 10 April 1912. She ran ran into an iceberg on 14 April at which time she was close to Newfoundland.

  • Mod parent up! (Score:3, Informative)

    by querist ( 97166 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:12PM (#23938179) Homepage

    I have to agree.

    I've flown in Europe and Asia as well as here in the USA, and I have to say that it's the worst in the USA.

    US: Four hour flight - peanuts and a diet coke.

    In the UK I had a flight delayed due to a medical emergency on the plane that was going to be the plane for my flight back to the USA. I don't know if it was the airline or the airport, but either way all of the passengers were given a good-sized voucher for a meal. I was stuffed and not at all thirsty and still had "money" left on the voucher, so it clearly covered that need nicely.

    Japan: connecting flight was late. When you are landing from an international flight it doesn't matter if you're just leaving Japan again, you still need to go through security to board another plane. They set up two separate security queues for us to make sure we made our connecting flight to China.

    China: Only ever had two delays, one was about 30 minutes with an reason and the other was a couple of hours - no reason needed - the storm was obvious. Two hour flight that happened to be over lunch time - full meal (and quite good, actually - China Southern Airlines). Four hour flight near dinner - full meal again. Both flights had two rounds of drinks and snacks.

    The USA's airlines can learn a few things from other nations' airlines.

  • by Jansingal ( 1098809 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:17PM (#23938247)


    those were the days when the unions were not as corrupt as they are know.

    buddy of mine works in a ny building. he has almost been killed for the crime of... turning on a router. It was a union ship.

    Today's unions are corrupt.

  • Re:union problem? (Score:4, Informative)

    by jandrese ( 485 ) <> on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:35PM (#23938509) Homepage Journal
    Wasn't the decade after that the worst ever for Airline accidents in the US? The problem isn't that the Air Traffic Controllers are resistant to change because they're afraid of losing their job, it's that the FAA is pathologically risk averse. That's the primary reason it's taking so long for ADS-B to get deployed, because any change could mean a change which could mean danger. It's impossible in the FAA to change the brand of coffee you make without a 2 year investigation.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:42PM (#23938623)

    Unions don't seem to be helping their workers much either. Overtime has gone away for a lot of white collar jobs, and most likely the 40 hour work week will go back to 60 hours in a couple years... hell, even the weekend is in jeopardy in most companies.

    We have gone full circle, back to the gilded age of the early 1900s. Welcome to Upton Sinclair's Jungle... and don't eat the sausage.

  • by LynnwoodRooster ( 966895 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @03:16PM (#23939201) Journal
    As a frequent flyer (like nearly every week, inside the US or internationally), here's a few tips:

    1. Check yourself in electronically - print out your boarding pass at home. That bypasses 30 minutes, easy.
    2. Check your baggage AT THE CURB. Pretty much every major airport in the US will let you check your baggage at the curb. Yes, it costs an extra $3 per bag to do so, but that saves another 15 minutes.
    3. No metal in your pockets, no liquids in your bag. Yes, you can survive without that bottle of water for 10 minutes.
    4. Always choose the security lane with the fewest number of families and old folks. Even if it's longer, you'll get through faster.

    I rarely show up more than 30 minutes before my boarding time, and have yet to NOT be at the gate prior to the start of boarding.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @03:53PM (#23939741)

    Probably arrest you for bringing such an unusual thing on board or at the very least cut the tire open to make sure you're not hiding some bomb in there.

    You simply do something that's not considered "normal" today and that's enough to warrant a strip search.

  • Re:union problem? (Score:4, Informative)

    by NullProg ( 70833 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @03:57PM (#23939823) Homepage Journal

    The Union is not and was not the problem in this case. In 1981 the Union was right and Reagan was very lucky that there wasn't a major air disaster because of his actions. As was the case for basically every action of that Administration, ideology triumphed over both reality and common sense.

    Are we rewriting history again?

    1) Federal Employees, which Air Traffic Controllers are, cannot legally strike.
    2) There wasn't a disaster because Reagan shifted Military Controllers into the FAA positions. Supervisors and non-striking controllers took up the rest of the slack.
    3) I would say a $30 billion a year tax generating revenue stream triumphed over the ATC Union desire of a 32-Hour work week for more money.

    Just like the Soviets, the ATC Union thought Reagan was bluffing. He wasn't.


  • by Pig Hogger ( 10379 ) <> on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @04:34PM (#23940497) Journal

    and the Amtrak employees could care less except that when their shift ends they're out of there, no matter where you are.
    The Amtrak crews will abandon their trains in the boondocks not to inconvenience the customers, but because it's the law.

    If any operating employee works more than 12 hours after resting 8 hours, he is outlaw, and will actually end up in jail.

    That law was brought about almost a century ago given the high number of accidents that happenned because train crews lacked some sleep.

  • by level99 ( 968745 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @09:26PM (#23943917)

    An hour of air travel (actual flight time) equals a day of travel by other means.

    That is SO bullshit. If you're traveling less than 4 hours by air, you're quicker to take a train in any place that has a modern transit system (like europe), because of the hassles at the terminals, etc.

    Sorry, but you are wrong. I used to live in Copenhagen - my family lives in Aalborg (both cities in Denmark, Europe). Driving from Copenhagen to Aalborg: 5 hours if you don't hit any congested roads. By train: 4,5 hours. Flying: 30 minutes (+ 30 minutes at the airport prior to departure). That killed your theory right there.

    Because of my work, I traveled to other European countries almost weekly. It takes considerably less time to fly from Copenhagen to Berlin, Cologne, Paris, Zurich, London, Amsterdam, Barcelona and most other cities I frequent. And in none, and I repeat NONE, of those cases would it be faster to go by train, car, bus or stand in the backyard and hope to be magically transported there.

    I was born and raised in Europe and there are many things about the region that I love. But traveling is not easier or different across Europe, than it is for me now that I live in the US and travel just as much. You could in some cases have a point with national travel in some European countries - but not cross border.

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.