Small Town Airports and the Coming Loss of Privacy

My brother-in-law, whose work takes him to many small towns, pointed out to me yesterday that the current concerns about backscatter scanner machines at airports will only get worse when the technology arrives in small towns (which it must, else airline security will be a joke because bomb-carrying terrorists will just board in Podunk instead of Paris).

Currently, the machines are in major cities through which millions of travelers pass anonymously each year and the TSA and airline staff members number in the thousands. But in small towns the airline employee who staffs the ticket desk then walks over to do the security line, and s/he’s someone you know because s/he lives in the same town as you do. Any TSA employees looking at the nudie photos will also be locals. In a town of a few thousand people, the TSA employee will get a gander eventually at his ex-wife, the local preacher, the police chief, the high school beauty queen etc.

But at least the TSA guy won’t describe the naked pictures to the airline employee who greets you at the desk, allowing the images to be associated with specific individuals. I know that’s true because I grew up in a small town, and we small town folk never, ever gossip.

We Need a GAO study of the Terrified Traveler

Our government is warning us that something bad may or may not happen in a small backwater known as “Europe” and therefore we should “be vigilant”.

I understand the value of letting public safety personnel know about elevated terrorism risk, and I know some of this is just CYA behavior in case something bad does indeed happen, but I would like GAO to do a study of whether travelers from the general public change their behavior in any way in response to vague warnings such as this (I don’t).

GAO could draw a random sample of 1000 frequent travelers to Europe (or wherever the next warning occurs) and ask them if the vague warning made them do anything post-warning that they didn’t do pre-warning. If they didn’t, these warnings are a waste of money and ought to be stopped.

Up in the Air II: Why Airlines now Charge for Same Day Standby

I try to fly only on a single airline so as to be treated less like an anonymous bovine by a company that somewhat values my business. But I got stuck the other day flying an airline on which I have no elite status, and thereby discovered that some airlines no longer allow free “same day standby” for the average Joe or Josephine. In the past, someone whose first leg flight landed early and was thereby able to grab an earlier connecting flight was whisked aboard without question or charge.

No charge standbys reflected the longstanding airline industry principle that there is nothing worse than an empty seat on a plane as it takes off (Again I recommend to RBCers the book Hard Landing, which explains how dilligently all the airlines worked to avoid the curse of empty seats up in the air). An empty airline seat is an unusual commodity: Its value increases over time as departure approaches but the moment the plane takes off, it becomes valueless.

I was puzzled by this airline wanting to charge me to move to an earlier connection, given that moving me into an empty seat of a plane that is about to depart opens up my seat on a later flight, which gains the airline more time to sell it to another customer (or to allow a bumped passenger to have a seat thus avoiding the “we are in an oversold situation” auction). It seemed they were refusing to give away something that was about to become valueless for the chance of making money later. Rather than be irritated, I decided to do some reading to figure out why the airline had reversed the long standing, seemingly rational industry practice of granting free same day standbys. Continue reading “Up in the Air II: Why Airlines now Charge for Same Day Standby”

Up in the Air: I. How Airports Coerce Sales of Bottled Water

On my current trip to South Dakota, I felt thirsty as I waited for my plane. I walked to one end of the terminal and did not see a water fountain. I walked to the other end and did not see one either. I was sure I had missed it, so I repeated a loop around each of the 12 gates between security and the end of the terminal. No water fountains.

There were however merchants selling bottled water. I was stubborn enough to go into the men’s restroom and run sink water into my hands for a rebellious slurp to slake my thirst, but most everyone else was lining up to buy bottled water.

In my youth, airports had massive phone banks. Pittsburgh took pride in having the largest in the world. As those disappeared, we were essentially forced to decide between not being able to make a call or purchasing our own personal cell phone. The same process is now forcing us to buy bottled water, which is (1) A ripoff (2) A contributor to landfills overflowing with plastic bottles. A small example of how the disappearance of shared public amenities drives personal consumption.

Take this flight attendant job and shove it

Particularly in a recession, many Americans in the service industry are going to sympathize with Steve Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who fled his airplane after being struck and treated like garbage by a passenger. My heart goes out to him, but my head says that no matter what punishment he receives or what help he gets (and he deserves both), he can never go back to his old job.

Jonathan Zasloff is right on point when he says that President Carter is in many ways the father of airline deregulation, although Senator Ted Kennedy and then-Congressman (later Secretary of Transportation) Norman Mineta were also key players. As it happens, I just read Hard Landing by Thomas Petzinger Jr., a truly brilliant book about the airline industry that makes clear that flight attendants were probably the biggest losers in deregulation. More often than not, the airlines have been able to cut deals with the big boys (and I used that gender-specific term advisedly) — the pilots’ unions — and thereby outmaneuver and crush the flight attendants’ union.

It’s a poorly paid job that wreaks havoc on family life and mental health. Mr. Slater’s experience is not unique in terms of abuse by passengers: The worst story I have heard concerned a passenger smacking a flight attendant on the head with her baby’s recently discarded diaper. Yet the perceived romance of travel keeps the number of young job applicants high, weakening the ability of current flight attendants to bargain for better labor conditions.

Mr. Slater was coping with all that, and apparently based on news coverage he also had other stresses in his life, including caring for his ailing parents. Were I a judge, I would order him to repay the financial damage he caused and get some sort of mental health care, but certainly not jail him for even a day (the entitled passenger who got up when he was not supposed to, hurt Mr. Slater with his luggage and then refused to apologize should get zero compensation).

All that said, Slater simply can’t go into the air again. Predicting rare behavioral events, like violence, has been extremely difficult for social scientists. We usually end up falling back on the completely accurate cliché that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The odds of any member of the flight crew losing it at altitude and doing something to endanger the passengers and crew are very very low, so low that we will never be able to predict it for any one individual…with the sole exception of those who have committed such an act before. That’s why for his own safety and everyone’s else, Mr. Slater needs to find a new career.