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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corporate entities with conflicting agendas, an air traffic controllers union resisting change, a technologically outdated air traffic control system, and more.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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  • Unions? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by bjourne ( 1034822 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @01:33PM (#23937571) Homepage Journal
    How are unions to blame for whatever is wrong with flying in the US?
  • by 91degrees ( 207121 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @01:39PM (#23937695) Journal
    Quite true. I bet if you could find people willing to pay the prices they were paying (adjusted for inflation) on a flight, you'd be able to offer an unparalleled service, where everyone travelled first class, champagne was free, tickets would be transferable, and the airline would treat every customer as a prince.

    Prices would be 3-4 times the price they are now so such luxuries would be easily affordable by an airline.
  • by Rob Kaper ( 5960 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:02PM (#23938027) Homepage

    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.

    The two hours rule is only there to spread the queues.

    And you are really showing the worst case scenario. Even at major airports you can easily arrive less than an hour prior to your flight and do a kiosk check-in within five minutes. Security varies (it's worse in the UK) but modern airports combine security with boarding which again takes twenty minutes maximum if you choose not to arrive at the gate an hour in advance.

    Local airports are even better, I can catch a seven o'clock flight here in Rotterdam leaving my house at six, half five if I choose public transportation instead of a taxi.

    While that might be a best case scenario, it should also be included in a fair analysis of air travel. Yes, I might pay fifty or even a hundred euro more, but it does save me the time and cost of travel to/from and time of pre/post-boarding holdups of bigger airports. While prices are still comparable with high-speed trains even for those non-budget flights.

    And sometimes there simply isn't another option: by train I can't get to London before noon or leave past five, making a single day business trip nearly impossible and a short vacation quite inefficient when it comes to cost versus time spent at location - hotels cost a lot as well and despite common belief, days off in Europe aren't unlimited. (The argument becomes even bigger when using the American amount of holidays.)

  • by jandrese ( 485 ) <> on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:22PM (#23938291) Homepage Journal

    Why are bus and train routes on time more often than planes?
    I see someone has never taken Amtrak or Grayhound ever. On Amtrak is is not unusual at all to be delayed 6 hours because some freight train has priority over you, and the Amtrak employees could care less except that when their shift ends they're out of there, no matter where you are.
  • Who's at fault here? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by prisoner-of-enigma ( 535770 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:27PM (#23938389) Homepage

    Your accusation of daily air rage, irate terminal passengers, and diverted flight does not correlate with reality. Do these incidents happen? Absolutely. Do they happen with the frequency you suggest? Not even close.

    Further, you seem to place the blame for the above incidents on the airlines alone. As others in this thread have pointed out, comparing 21st-century air travel with the 1950's is absurd. Flying back then was a novelty only enjoyed by those with means. Today, any beer-swilling, uncouth, unwashed, uneducated thug can hop on a plane for what would've been pennies on the inflation-adjusted dollar. This is one reason why I pay for my own upgrades to business class while on business travel. The folks you sit with in business class tend to be (but not always are) polite, educated, and considerate. The legroom and free drinks are just perks compared to not having to deal with someone's advanced case of body odor and lack of manners.

    As for baggage handling issues, that's as much the fault of the airport as it is the airline. Of course, what do you expect when the whole darn thing is run by unions? Incompetent, lazy workers are difficult to fire. Hardworking, intelligent ones have to wait in line to get promoted due to union seniority rules.

    Another thing: what ever happened to requiring the passenger to be something above the level of a dolt when it comes to carryon baggage and airport security screening? How hard is it to read the damned signs saying "take out your laptops and toiletry items" and "take off your shoes, jackets, and blazers"? Security screeners aren't terribly polite, I'll hand you that, but then again they have to deal with the idiots who march right up to the metal detector wearing shoes, a pound of metal jewelry, and leaving their laptop and/or liquids in their baggage.

    Last, consider what you're getting for your dollar. Fuel costs are murdering the airlines right now, yet ticket costs have not kept pace. What do you think that shortfall comes out of?

    Airlines are businesses. They must make a profit or go out of business. If customers are so darned unhappy with what they're getting for their money, they're free to try other modes of transportation (bus! Fun!) or go try and start their own airline that does things they way they want them done -- and then go bankrupt.

  • by Ian Alexander ( 997430 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:27PM (#23938393)
    That _really_ depends on where you are.

    The train from Bellingham, WA to Portland, OR (Google Maps informs me it's 262 miles) takes about seven hours and you need to show up at least twenty minutes early. Call it 7 and a half hours.

    On the other hand, I recently flew from Sea-Tac to Chicago O'Hare (~2,000 miles) in about four hours, plus two hours early for checkin = about 6 hours.
  • by ( 1108067 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:47PM (#23938715) Homepage Journal

    If planes were to be severely curtailed, there'd be a LOT more impetus for high-speed rail, which is also a lot more energy-efficient. The distance is 8,016 km. At 320 km./hr., you're looking at 25 hours. Already, there are plans for California to build a 320km/hr rail system ...

  • by Rob Kaper ( 5960 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:52PM (#23938791) Homepage

    Even assuming your "we can guarantee a complete security check within two hours" service, it's still a suggestion only. Just look at the "latest check-in" time at the signs when you actually do check-in and notice that the latest option they give you is usually not more than an hour and even less at smaller airports.

    And they do this for some trains actually, they advice at least thirty minutes for Eurostar trains to the UK which is similar to the boarding time for flights. The advantage here is that check-in and security are one single step, having just one service every two hours from one gate. Again the hub size is the deciding factor here, not the form of transportation.

  • by Illbay ( 700081 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @02:55PM (#23938837) Journal
    Well, not so much in the 1960s. By then, air travel was a standard mode of travel for any businessman, like my father who was a twenty-something salesman in the chemical business back then and flew constantly. We'd all get dressed up, us boys in our short pants and white shirts with bow ties, Mom in her dress, and go drop off or pick up Daddy at the Airport.

    Of course, I'll now get modded down extensively, but the REAL reason for the problem today is that (a) in general we have a lower level of civility in society, and (b) this stems from a much lower level of RELIGION in family and individual life.

    Since everyone's "out for number one" now, it follows that all those "number twos" better get the h*ll out of our way. There is no direct relation between general prosperity - and the U.S. as a whole is FAR more prosperous today than fifty years ago - and civil behavior. There IS a relationship between faith and values, however.

  • Traveling (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @03:01PM (#23938939)

    getting there is supposed to be half the fun.
    Unless your goal is specifically to wander (nothing wrong with that) then no, getting there is NOT half the fun. It's not even 1% of the fun. When I visited China I went to see China - not to have "half the fun" on the inside of a 747 and certainly not getting seasick on a boat for several weeks. That prospect does not appeal to me in the slightest.

    I personally don't enjoy the actual act of riding/driving/flying from point A to point B in most cases. I consider it a waste of my time and hence my life. If I want to stop a bunch of places along the way I'd prefer it be intentional. You may feel differently and that's fine. I would like to spend my life doing the things I enjoy, not the things you think I should enjoy. Riding a vehicle somewhere is not what I personally enjoy.

  • by backwardMechanic ( 959818 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @03:07PM (#23939043) Homepage

    ...air traffic controllers union resisting change, a technologically outdated air traffic control system...
    Air traffic controllers are a very conservative bunch. They don't like change. They like to test things *heavily* before putting them into regular use. I like it that way.

    I briefly worked in ATC research. Whatever neat computer system the scientists came up with, the controllers would look at and say "what do we do when it fails?". And they're serious. If the radars go down they can manage a sector by memory and radio comms. It's very impressive. There are lots of shiney new technology-based answers that just aren't reliable enough. The trouble is, too many people are flying.
  • by stubob ( 204064 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @03:36PM (#23939517) Homepage

    Absolutely. Anecdotal evidence from last weekend. I took a trip from Denver to Rapid City, South Dakota to look at the monuments and such. Google Maps says the trip is 400 miles, about 6 hours 30 minutes of drive time.

    Ticket price: $250 a piece for my wife and me. Flight was scheduled to depart at 10 a.m. Left the house at 7 to drive the the airport (45 minutes + parking and walking to the terminal, call it an hour). Check in was pretty easy. I'm on the TSA watch list (still, even after filling out the form two months ago), so we couldn't check in online. So figure another 45 minutes for ticketing, security and getting to the gate. Wait around until 10, plane takes off on time. Flight time is one hour. Wait around to get off the plane and get bags (figure another 30 minutes, it' a small plane and small airport). Another hour from Rapid City to the condo. So in total, 5 hours and change.

    If we'd driven my car, at 25 mpg, gas at $4 per gallon, 800 miles/25mpg*4 = $128 for gas total. So the flight saved one hour and cost 4x as much. And that's on Frontier. Wait until July, when we fly to Michigan on United ($500 each per ticket).

  • by hiryuu ( 125210 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @04:06PM (#23939995)

    1. Check yourself in electronically - print out your boarding pass at home. That bypasses 30 minutes, easy.

    Another business frequent flyer here (about the same frequency as you cited), and I can say I did this and loved it until my name landed on the no-fly list in October of last year. I've been trying to get off the list since then, with no luck, and have to check in with a live person for every single flight! I can't even use the automated kiosks.

    Arbitrary governmental action has made my work significantly more cumbersome and troublesome for no real benefit, and that has been the single largest impact I've seen.

  • by Pig Hogger ( 10379 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `reggoh.gip'> on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @04:43PM (#23940685) Journal

    You used to be able to take your car along, in a freight car, so when you got to wherever it was unloaded and you drove off. Presumably you could still do that if you cared to rent half of a flatbed car, or one berth in an auto-carrier car (whatever the railroads call them).
    You still can do that. []
  • by CohibaVancouver ( 864662 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @04:55PM (#23940823)
    My family lives in Brazil (I'm a dual citizen), if it would take me a month each way, (two weeks being generous) to get me from nashville, TN to Rio de Janeiro, I would never get to see my family.

    I think the difference is that cheap airfare has resulted in an expectation that people are able to fly 'home' repeatedly and cheaply. In the 60s, if you'd left Brazil and moved to America you probably would have resolved yourself to the fact you wouldn't have seen your family for a few years. Flying would have been too expensive and other options would have taken too long. Fast forward 40 years and people *expect* to be able to fly everywhere cheaply.

    My father moved to Vancouver, Canada from England in 1964. He didn't return to England for 8 years. Why? It was too expensive.

    I think as the era of 'cheap flights' comes to end (due to higher fuel prices) people will have to once again change their mindsets and expect that unlimited cheap travel is a thing of the past...

  • by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @05:05PM (#23940935) Homepage Journal
    Well, I am one of those that usually doesn't enjoy the travel, I prefer to be at the destination for most of my time.

    Hell, I don't even drive on trips more than 5+ hours away...unless I'm going to be at the destination for 3 or more days....

    I like to fly.....I mean, I don't want to spend more that 2 days on a trip/vacation doing travel, those are lost days.

    Speaking of...most all of my travel is on Southwest Airlines....I have to guess all the horror stories and all are on other airlines. I've never had problems with SWA. They run on time, I've not been bumped from a flight...I think my luggage has never been lost, although it was delayed once...and I got it back quickly. I have no complaints with them and from what I read they are about the highest rated airline in most all categories of customer satisfaction.

    Why can't the other airlines switch to SWA's business model? It seems to work.

    My only bitch is....I kinda miss the first come first serve thing they had with the boarding lines, it was kinda fun to get tho the gate early and "camp out" in line. I guess the newer way with line number on the boarding pass isn't bad....but, I must say....I do dislike the new business class ticket that lets you spend a little more money, and jump to the head of the line. I like everyone having the same chance to check in early and get on the plane first.

    But, other than that....I can't say that my experience flying in the past years have been much of anything but kind of pleasant once I get on the plane. I like to get on first, and hit the seats on the middle escape aisle...where they have the most leg room. I can then pop out the laptop, get a drink and watch dvd's (my fav to watch is a bootleg of the '72 Stones tour, "Ladies and Gentlement The Rolling Stones")...

    One last thing...ALWAYS remember to be kind to your flight attendants. They are your bartenders in the air!!

  • by cduffy ( 652 ) <> on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @05:15PM (#23941051)

    ...actually, there's a different way to interpret that: If I actually were a bigshot, the business cost of my unavailability (on account of increased travel times) would be amplified, making my unavailability more, rather than less, unpalatable.

  • by cduffy ( 652 ) <> on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @07:41PM (#23942927)

    That's a research subject in and of itself -- certainly not something I'm qualified to speak on. It's an interesting thought experiment, though, to ponder whether it would be any different with a full-wall telescreen between each side (with an extremely high-quality video feed) and a table adjoining. Not being able to hug or shake hands or pass the turkey would be an adjustment -- but perhaps an acceptable one; I suppose one could try to determine, given such a setup, how much people would be willing to pay (or be inconvenienced) for physical presence after having enough time with such an arrangement for both sides to become accustomed to it.

    It might also be interesting to compare reactions between telepresence and physical presence separated by a wall with a (unopenable) window having the same dimensions as the telepresence screen; an experiment of that sort might help to isolate the aspect of telepresence which is less palatable (ie. 2D screen / mic-and-speakers vs. direct vision and actual voice, or the opportunity for physical contact).

  • by rabiddeity ( 941737 ) on Wednesday June 25, 2008 @11:06PM (#23944657) Homepage

    So, like routing packets on the internet.

    With the notable exception that you can drop packets on the Internet, and the sender will simply retransmit. In fact, with TCP/IP you are expected to do so. I'd be willing to bet that a large percentage of IP packets are dropped. But with human beings your "packets" are unique tokens which are not retransmittable and cannot be dropped. If the rail lines past Bumfuck, IA are blocked by freight cars or other nonsense, I either have to backtrack creating more traffic, or wait there until it clears up. I can't discard the people or cargo, and they will take up buffer space. So it's not quite the same, the railroads have their own set of issues.

Mr. Cole's Axiom: The sum of the intelligence on the planet is a constant; the population is growing.