There's a perfect storm brewing in the air travel industry. Combine idiots in the legislative branch of government, which created the TSA, with idiots in the executive branch, who run the TSA and make the stupid rules that the idiot TSA inspectors follow, with idiots who run the airlines--combine these idiots, and you get a disaster of Biblical proportions. And that's what we've got.
Allow me to start with the airlines, because at check-in they're the first people you encounter. At the airports I've been to in the last couple years, it seems the vast majority of the airlines have installed computerized kiosks at their ticket counters--ostensibly to speed check-in. This is absurd. It might work for people who fly regularly and know how to manipulate the kiosks, but everyone else has to read every single word on every single screen to ensure they don't make a mistake checking in. And assuming you get it done correctly, you still have to speak to an agent so they can tag and take your luggage and give you the luggage receipt. Wouldn't it be quicker if those agents--the people who do this every single day and who know what they're doing--wouldn't it be quicker if they just checked everybody in? After all, they know their particular airline's check-in procedures intimately.
I was the only person in line a few minutes ago, so I wasn't concerned about holding up the (non-existent) people behind me, so I asked one of the four agents who were standing there to come assist me. While we were chatting, I asked why the agents don't just check folks in like they did in the pre-kiosk days. "Oh, it's best if the customers check themselves in." When I asked why, the response I got was, "It's in the customers' best interest to check themselves in." That's some excellent logic there. Except for making less work for the agents, how is this any improvement over the old system? When I left Sacramento I watched as the kiosk next to me malfunctioned and wouldn't print the boarding pass for the frustrated gentleman operating it. It took the two of us to get a ticket agent over to assist him--but rest assured, it's best for the customer to operate this unfamiliar equipment and check himself in.
So after achieving the sacred "boarding pass" merit badge, it's time to move on to what is perhaps the biggest groups of idiot government workers outside of Congress, the Transportation Security Administration. Pre-9/11, inspections were performed (not very well, at least at Boston and New York airports) by minimum wage employees hired by each airport. Obviously, people of rocket science-caliber were not applying in droves to be airport baggage inspectors. Now, you have the same caliber of person making $16/hr or more doing exactly the same job but with the full force and authority of the US government behind them. And what do they do? They enforce rules drafted by idiotic, CYA bureaucrats who wouldn't know security if it bit them on the butt. Why do some airports require you to take off your shoes, and others don't? Why do some check you out naked with x-ray backscatter devices, and others don't? Why do some have you open your laptop before x-raying it, and others insist it remain closed? There's no consistency; how's the traveling public supposed to know what to do? The result? Long, slow-moving lines. And it's not like the TSA is improving security at all--how many more reports do we have to read about TSA's failure to detect mock guns and bombs in carry-on baggage?
And who doesn't just love the ziplock baggie rule? You know, any liquids you want to bring on board must be in 3 fl. oz. or smaller containers and all of them must fit in a clear, ziplock baggie. If that isn't genius enough, we're not allowed to bring a soft drink or a bottle of water with us--but please, feel free to buy water at $3/bottle or more after going through the security checkpoint! Same with that sandwich you want to bring to supplement the pretzels and/or peanuts the airline might serve you--can't bring it with you because that PB&J might blow up the aircraft, but buy one for $8 at the concessionaire beyond the security checkpoint. Talk about a racket.
We're not done with the TSA yet, because after having your person and your carry-ons x-rayed, you have to wait in line while everyone in front of you gets dressed. Watches and necklaces have to go back on, as do belts and shoes and glasses. Laptops have to be returned to their cases. Is there as much room on the "done" side of the x-ray machine as there is on the "get ready" side? Oh, you know there's not. An idiotic rule backed up by piss-poor planning.
But now that we're done with security, having shown ID 3 times so far, we're back to the airlines. You know who I'm talking about, those companies who compete against each other to show the lowest prices on Travelocity or Orbitz but then tack on all sorts of extra fees, some of which they don't tell you about until the end. Some airlines are already charging to check a 2nd bag per person, and a few have started to charge to check in a single suitcase! At least one has decided to charge for $2 for a soft drink--the very soft drink you're now forbidden by law to bring through the security checkpoint.
One thing we know from economics--the marketplace will respond. And it has. As an example, one city that is extremely dependent on air travel, Las Vegas, is already experiencing a big drop as airlines cut routes to save money. Fewer air passengers mean fewer visitors to the casinos, which means...well, you get the idea. My point is, who wants to fly under these conditions? The marketplace will respond.
Government isn't the solution here. Heck, government is half the problem. And the airline industry isn't helping itself by thinking in 19th-century-railroad terms, not recognizing that demand for air travel is very elastic. Something has to give, and this storm shows no signs of abating.
Government and industry, working together to create the absolute worst travel experience possible.
And for the record, my check-in and security experiences were as smooth as they could have been this trip. Can you imagine the tenor of this post if I'd have had a difficulty?
And let me offer kudos to Continental Airlines, the mandatory check-in kiosk notwithstanding. Their flight crews were exceptional, they offered more than just peanuts and drinks on two of my four flights, and, in these days of severe cost-cutting, they still offered pillows and blankets to passengers.
Update: What will US air travel look like in 10 years? Here are some ideas.
Update #2, 6/24/08: Here we learn that customs can seize your laptop and camera if they so desire.
Citing those lawsuits, Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, refuses to say exactly how common the practice is, how many computers, portable storage drives, and BlackBerries have been inspected and confiscated, or what happens to the devices once they are seized.
The article also doesn't say what criteria customs uses to determine whether or not to seize your private property.
When will this madness end? When Americans get fed up with it and insist, insist, that the Congress make it end.