Sunday, May 10, 2009


Airlines (not quite a defence of)

In response to a "rant" about how airlines should get fined for running late (the US is apparently considering a law to this effect) ...

Okay, but please beware of unintended consequences here. Taken to extreme, this creates a climate in which other things we care about, like safety, can/could/might get bumped for the all-important schedule. One bag doesn't get checked fully enough, one hatch is closed too quickly, one ATC doesn't hold an aircraft in its safety pocket long enough, or someone just doesn't scrape the ice completely, because WE CAN'T MISS that deadline. If you have one integrated system, like the Japanese railways, things can be joined up properly, but that just isn't the case with airlines, service teams, traffic systems and ground handling, let alone security, all of which can be run by different organisations, and any of which can have an effect on a schedule. Part of the issue here is the blame game and the dislocation of shared accountability, which isn't necessarily going to get solved by just fining airlines. They don't own all the solution.

Before its privatisation, British Rail used to get castigated for its poor performance (as in being a national joke). Post privatisation, which split the network up into separate profit (ho ho) centres, on-time perfomance is worse, ticket prices are sky-high (because actually it's a route monopoly stuation, not a free market), taxpayer subsidies are even greater, and worst of all, the individual parts of the system don't work together. In the "bad old" days British Rail would routinely hold a train for five or ten minutes (there goes the schedule!) if an incoming connecting train was delayed. And they would tell people this was happening, and nobody minded too much because they could appreciate the benefit to connecting passengers. The system wasn't great, but it worked better than our current Thatcherite hands-off, market-forces public transport disaster. Today we have a triumph of dogma over pragma. It sounded good - to some at least - at the time, but they just hadn't thought it through.

Airlines take flak (and certainly deserve a lot of it) because they are the face of the customer's flying experience. If delays are their fault, then certainly give them a smack. But in my view they are one visible moving part among many less visible others which also need to be held just as accountable.

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