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November 27, 2009

Aviation's Tailspin

Anybody who reads this column knows how I feel about flying. I loathe it! I would sooner endure an overnight sleeper-car on Amtrak than three hours of turbulence on a Regional Jet. Talking to friends and business associates, I find I am not alone in my dislike of air travel.

The airline business is in a tailspin. Airlines keep cutting air fares to hold market share while also cutting staff pay and, many fear, safety.

Their fleets are smaller and so too are the jets. On routes that used to see 737s you’re lucky to be on a Canadair RJ. And forget about 767’s on transcons. They’re now run with 737’s or A320’s. Empty seats? Not anymore!

Since 9/11 we’ve seen 70,000 jobs lost in the airline business.

On a recent trip to Cincinnati, the guy driving my cab told me he used to be an avionics repairman for Comair before they closed their hub there. He recounted a really sick joke: “What’s the difference between an airline pilot and a pizza? Well, a pizza can feed a family of four.”

Underpaid pilots work up to 14 hours while flight attendants, who make $17,000 a year to start (minimum wage), must endure endless abuse from justifiably outraged customers. But these customer-facing employees shouldn’t be blamed for managements’ decisions. Pilots, mechanics and stews keep seeing pay cuts while the management desk-jockeys give themselves bonuses.

And what happens to the passengers? We’re merely cattle.

Imagine my delight at the recent news that the US Dept of Transportation has fined three airlines $175,000 for last summer’s stranding of a jet filled with passengers, overflowing toilets and screaming babies for six hours on the tarmac after a weather-related diversion.

Continental and operator ExpressJet will ante up $100,000 and, for refusing to allow passengers to offload in Rochester MN, Mesaba Airlines will pay $75,000.
Though these kinds of horror stories of airline indifference seem to occur monthly, this is the first time airlines have been fined. And the Feds say it won’t be the last. But why these paltry fines and not a law?

The proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights is still languishing in Congress despite the lobbying efforts of FlyersRights.org organizer Kate Hanni. As she points out, the Geneva Convention grants better treatment to POW’s than the FAA affords human air travelers.

Here’s what the laws are asking for:
1) Essential services onboard: adequate food, water, HVAC and medical kits.

2) The right to deplane if your flight hasn’t taken off three hours after leaving the gate.

3) Creation of an air passenger complaint hotline at the DOT.

We’re not even talking about airlines a la carte pricing for checked bags, blankets and seat selection. Or whacking us with a $30 per ticket holiday surcharge, just because they can. This is basic stuff. Survival.

While waiting on lawmakers to do something for consumers, FlyersRights reminds travelers there are things they can do to protect themselves:

1) If you get bumped because of overbooking and are not offered compensation, protest. Federal law says if you’re delayed by one to four hours you are entitled to $400. For a two to four hour delay, double your ticket price up to $800. Traveling to Europe, up to $900.

2) Pack light so you can carry-on. But always bring three days worth of medicines.

3) If you must check your bags, weigh them at home and don’t trust the airline scales. A recent consumer agency sweep in NYC found 8% of scales tested were inaccurate.

4) Never pack valuables, fragile or electronic items. They may be broken or stolen. And don’t wrap holiday gifts or the TSA will make you unwrap them.

We may never return to the glamorous days of air travel when one dressed up for the flight. But I’d be happy with just a little leg room, a free can of soda and a little consideration when things get delayed. Is that so much to ask?

November 15, 2009

The MTA's Really Big Dig

We all know what happened when Boston decided to bury its downtown elevated interstate highway, known as the central artery. What was intended to be a seven-year, $2.5 billion project became a ten-year, $14.6 billion engineering nightmare.

Well, heads up fellow commuters and taxpayers! New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, (parent of Metro-North) has similar designs on our beloved Grand Central. Nicknamed the “East Side Access” project, the goal is to bring the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central.

The plan would use the lower level of the already built 63rd Street subway tunnel, allowing some LIRR trains from Queens to enter Manhattan and then follow a new, very deep tunnel under existing Metro-North tracks beneath Park Avenue. Trains would terminate 14 stories under Grand Central on eight tracks with up to 24 trains arriving per hour. Exiting passengers… an estimated 162,000 per day (compared with the 115,000 who arrive and depart from Connecticut)… would be whisked upward on high speed escalators, to the west side of GCT, into an underground concourse complex stretching from 43rd to 48th streets.

Estimated cost for the project… $8 billion… about the same as rebuilding the entire World Trade Center complex. Actual cost, factoring in inevitable delays (they’re already a year behind schedule), cost over-runs and typical under-estimation by politically sensitive designers… who knows, maybe double that? And for what gain?

The only reason for the East Side Access project is to give LIRR riders better access to midtown. Is the subway ride connection from Penn Station to GCT really all that bad? Imagine what we could do with $8 billion to improve commuter rail service in the tri-state region.

What would an almost doubling of passengers in GCT (by adding LIRR to existing Metro-North riders) mean for Connecticut commuters? Well, if you think the station’s crowded now, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. And just imagine the already jam-packed Lexington Avenue subway station with even more riders!

The currently under-utilized GCT would quickly be maxed out for trains and platforms, making much-needed expansion of service to Connecticut a real problem.
True, diverting some LIRR trains into GCT might free-up “slots” in Penn Station for Metro-North trains (which would travel there by way of the Hell Gate bridge), but don’t count on it, what with New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and LIRR also vying for more trains in Penn Station.

If all of this concerns you, don’t get your knickers in a knot. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. The money’s already been appropriated and the project should be finished in 2015.

What role did Connecticut play in this boondoggle? Zero… nada… zilch. New York’s MTA didn’t ask our opinion or seek our approval. Though Connecticut Dept. of Transportation is Metro-North’s biggest customer, our state still has no seat, no vote and no say on the MTA or Metro-North Boards. Governor Rell said she’d change that, but never did.

Connecticut commuters pay the bills and New York’s MTA calls the tune, building a really “big dig” that benefits Long Island but penalizes us. What’s wrong with this picture?

Editor’s Note: For more info on the East Side Access project, see http://www.mta.nyc.ny.us/capconstr/esas/index.html