Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It

Posted on by Ben Rothke

My full review of Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It is on Slashdot. 

What does a book about the air traffic control system (ATC) have to do with information security?  A lot!!  The ATC system is complex and administered by bureaucrats, who often are clueless to how the system works.  Information security is to a degree managed in a similar way. 

While Terminal Chaos should be shelved in the current events or business section of a bookstore, it could also be placed in the modern crime section. After reading it, one gets the impression that the state of air traffic today could only come due to criminal neglect or mischief. If one looks at pictures of airline flights from the 1960s, you will see well-dressed passengers enjoying their flight. In 2008, barely a day goes by without an incident of air rage, from irate passengers in the terminal, to those in the air causing flights to be diverted. Today's airline traveler considers it a near miracle if his flight arrives on time with his baggage.

The reasons for the meltdown in the air traffic system are complex. The book names a number of reasons for today's chaos. Some of these include airline deregulation, multiple governmental agencies with no central oversight or responsibility, multiple corporate entities with conflicting agendas, an air traffic controllers union resisting change, a technologically outdated air traffic control system, and more. 

While the public perception in the US is that somewhere out there, government officials are looking out for passenger's rights, the reality is there is no one looking out for them. Unlike their European counterparts, air travelers in the US have very few rights. This lack of passenger advocacy along with the other reasons has a huge impact on the economy, in addition to the costs that flight delays and cancellations cost U.S. travelers, which are estimated annually at over $3 billion. 

Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It is a fascinating book. The authors show a number of ways to fix the current problems. While the book is part case-study, it is also part tragedy, given the tragedy is that Washington lacks anyone with the pragmatism, willpower and audacity to stand up to the unions and powers that be to fix the system. The book lays out in 7 concise chapters the problems, ringleaders, obstacles and challenges that brought us to the state that we are in today. 

The authors sum it up best when they note that the distance from New York to Chicago is 635 nautical miles, and when flown by a piston-powered DC-6 with a cruise speed of 315 MPH over 50 years ago, the scheduled flight time was a little longer than two hours. Today, scheduled airlines fly Boeing 737 turbofans at 511 MPH, but book this as a 3-hour flight. 

In chapter 4, the authors note that while some flight delays are the result of post-9/11 security issues, the main reason why flying has become so arduous is that the air transportation system, as it is now structured in the US, is untenable from a fundamental business point of view. The government regulated business model is unstable and irrational and planes are purposely overbooked, flights are cancelled for no publicly explainable reason, and no one will offer the flier a sound reason for why these events occur. 

Both authors are professors at the Center for Air Transportation Systems research at George Mason University. The book quotes from research done there, which includes suggestions such as to use larger aircraft (something Continental is doing at Newark), along with other market mechanisms. Other research shows that slot exemption, weight-based landing fees and other issues combine to lead to inefficient use of airport capacity, especially as slot-controlled airports, such as O'Hare, Kennedy, Newark, LaGuardia and Atlanta. 

In chapter 6, the authors take a no-holds barred approach to NATCA, which is the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. They view NATCA as a stumbling block to modernization, and an organization whose goal is to protect their members, over the public they are supposed to serve. They also question how NATCA gets away with constantly stating that the US air traffic control system is the safest in the world, when it is actually behind Europe when it comes to safety metrics (Europe has .032 hull losses per 1 million departures vs. .049 in North America). 

Ultimately, the book notes that the air traffic control problems exist in the fact that there is a perfect storm of airlines, airports, government agencies (FAA, DOT, OMB, DHS), White House and Congress, all of which seem to believe that they don't have the responsibility to fix the problem. Each seems to be waiting for someone else to take charge. 

Overall, Terminal Chaos is a landmark book, in that it cuts through the complexity of the air traffic mess, and clearly lays out the problem, and possible solutions. 

It is a very well-written and extremely well-researched book. It does have a few slight errors. Most noticeably on page 73 when it says that Continental has been in and out of bankruptcy court, while the table on the next page shows that Continental has been out of bankruptcy court for over 15 years. Also, one of the travel tips the authors give is to have a traveler consider using a private aircraft out of smaller, less congested airports. That is indeed a good suggestion, albeit extremely costly, and not financially feasible for most of the flying public. 

Terminal Chaos is a book that should be required reading for anyone involved in air traffic and aviation, from passengers to every employee at the FAA. The authors have innovative ideas that should be listened to and implemented; from holding the government decision-makers responsible, to realistic ways to modernizing the air traffic control system. The book is a fascinating overview of what goes on in the skies above us, and in the air traffic control towers around us.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

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