Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Secretary of Transportation

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The official duties of this position, from the DOT web site are:

The Office of the Secretary (OST) oversees the formulation of national transportation policy and promotes intermodal transportation. Other responsibilities range from negotiation and implementation of international transportation agreements, assuring the fitness of US airlines, enforcing airline consumer protection regulations,issuance of regulations to prevent alcohol and illegal drug misuse in transportation systems and preparing transportation legislation.
Here are the two duties I'm thinking about:
1. Assuring the fitness of US airlines
2. Enforcing airline consumer protection regulations

How does ANYONE assure the fitness of the airlines in 2008? Back in 1978, there was something called the Airline Deregulation Act, which provided for the Civilian Aviation Board (CAB) to sunset in 1984. The CAB used to set up city pairs, to ensure that there was air service to all sorts of second and third tier cities. The CAB would manage routes. The idea was that air traffic should not be restricted to major cities only. So, if Braniff wanted to fly from JFK to LAX, the CAB would grant them the route, provided they also served, perhaps, Rochester, NY to LAX.

The corollary purpose of the Act was to allow market forces to control air traffic. If you're young, you may not have ever flown TWA, PanAm, Braniff, or Eastern, nor heard the name Juan Trippe. They were amoung the huge airlines that used to provide service. If you're young, you don't remember when air travel was a marvelous experience, and there was no need to have consumer protections, because the airlines actually wanted your business, and treated you well. And as an aside, I have always admired Mr. Trippe. He was a man of vision, who had huge successes and even larger failures. He always wanted PanAm to be the American flagship airline, and it was one of the few things he was unable to accomplish in his lifetime.

This was how it used to go. First, you got dressed up. When you got to the airport, the porter would take your bags, you'd go to the gate, you showed nothing other than your ticket, you sat on the plane (where there was always enough room). If you carried anything on board, it was a purse, or a thin briefcase, or maybe some gifts you were bringing to people on the other end. That's all true. AND - if you had a 3 pm flight, you could get to the airport at 2:30, meander to your gate, and still make the flight. Which then landed on time at your destination. Finally, you could fly direct, because the system was city-pair, and not hub-and-spoke.

Then, they fed you. Actual food.There was a huge magazine collection from which to choose. On longer flights, they would hand out "convenience packs" with a toothbrush, comb, toothpaste, hand cream, all sorts of goodies. If you were a child, they would have packs of colouring books and crayons and games.

With the sunset of the CAB, a new crop of airlines arose: all committed to profit. There was People's Express, large planes filled with college students and their backpacks. New York Air, which flew minimum routes, but always had fresh coffee, New York bagels and the New York Times AT THE GATE for the morning flights. And finally, Southwest, the only survivor of the sunset airlines.

In the middle of the CAB sunset, Reagan destroyed PATCO, which has led, in certain ways, to the inability of air traffic control to ever recover. Our skies were much safer before that action, not just because they were less crowded, but because the dismantling of the union took a wealth of knowledge that has never been replaced.

So here we are today, with airlines merging, uncertain economic models for those airlines surviving, a profit motive that has morphed what was once something to look forward to into sardine cans in the sky.

The overlay is that air travel, since 9/11, is now dangerous in ways we never thought about before 9/10.

The confluence of all these things is that we need the right person in this job. If I weren't so opposed to his politics, I'd put Fred Smith on the list. If Juan Trippe were alive, I wouldn't even run a poll, I'd be organizing a petition drive. But we've got what we've got, in a nation addicted to, and dependent on, our air travel system: both for people and cargo. So, upon whose shoulders should this mantle rest?

You may want to take a different approach to your selection: that "intermodal transportation" line in the official duties relates to inter-city and intra-city transportation. Would the DOT be better off to leave aviation alone, and concentrate on shifting cargo from trucks to trains? Should the prime thrust of the administration relate to mass transit over cars, or should that be done in concert with the Department of Energy?

Therefore, instead of specific names, some more amorphous choices: