Most Active Stories
- In projects big and small, Watertown’s downtown reviving – but some say city government lacks vision
- BP killing Cape Vincent Wind Farm
- Geddes town supervisor talks SAFE Act with Cuomo
- Growing plants from seed ensures getting what you paid for
- Senator Kirsten Gillibrand proposes new military sexual assault bill
Why Flying Is No Fun (And May Be More Dangerous)
Originally published on Wed June 27, 2012 12:53 pm
After the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, flying changed considerably.
Some of those changes have improved commercial flying, but others have made the skies much less friendly, says journalist and airline veteran William J. McGee.
McGee's new book, Attention All Passengers, details how airlines are cutting costs through regional carriers, outsourcing airline maintenance, mishandling baggage and overbooking airplanes.
"It's not your imagination that there are more people flying on each flight," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "The average percentage of occupied seats on a plane these days is over 80 percent. That means a great number of flights are at 100 percent. [That has] led to all of the other problems related to service: delays, canceled flights, lost baggage, consumer complaints and passengers being involuntarily bumped off flights. ... Flying is just not a pleasant experience."
Complaints of damaged and mishandled bags spiked after the Transportation Security Administration took over bag screening, says McGee.
"There have been a lot of high-profile cases of TSA employees who take bags into the back room, and when they come back out, things are missing," he says. "To some extent the TSA has managed to get a handle on that, but it's really part of a much bigger, systemic problem within the industry ... [about] how many functions revolving around commercial aviation that are outsourced."
Among those functions: everything from maintenance to customer service to baggage handling, says McGee.
"I don't think many passengers realize that when they're in an airport and there's some sort of a problem, and they walk up to a ticket counter and they're talking to someone who's wearing the uniform of an airline employee, that in many cases they're not [talking to] an airline employee," he says.
Aircraft maintenance and repairs are also frequently outsourced — in some cases to unlicensed mechanics in China, Singapore, Mexico and El Salvador.
"In my view, it's a critical safety issue — the FAA's lack of oversight of maintenance [in these countries]," he says. "It used to be, if an airline had a major maintenance facility, the FAA had an office, and an inspector could pop by anytime. Now, with work being done [overseas], I've had dozens of inspectors express their frustration that they can't do their jobs. They're monitoring this work on an honor system."
Mechanics have told McGee that planes come back from their maintenance trips and are not ready to fly.
"Among the problems they've talked about are doors that were not sealed properly. ... There are problems with engines that have had to be shut down, and there are serious problems that have led to smoke in the cabin," he says. "And any time you have smoke in the cabin, that could lead to catastrophe. These airplanes are coming back in conditions where additional work needs to be done to get them back online, in many cases."
The Federal Aviation Administration does not require airlines to list the subcontractors they work with. And finding out that information can be quite difficult, says McGee.
"Independent government organizations, including the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation's Inspector General's Office, have gone to the airlines and said, 'Where is the work being done and who's doing it?' " says McGee.
"And the airlines, amazingly, have responded that they're not clear, in some cases. To me, this is just mind-boggling. ... Congressional testimony has shown that the FAA does not even have a full sense of where the work is being done."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Get just about any group of adults on the subject of air travel these days and every one of them will have a horror story to tell, or more than one: canceled flights, lost baggage, and fees for stuff that used to be free. Some airlines now charge for carry-on bags.
Our guest, William McGee, believes airlines' aggressive cost-cutting in recent decades hasn't just added fees and hassles. He says they're taking steps that compromise safety, and regulators should be paying closer attention to airline maintenance and training procedures.
McGee is a former airlines operations manager who's made a career as an aviation journalist, writing for Consumer Reports, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other publications. He's an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher, and in 2010 he was named the sole consumer advocate to the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, formed to make recommendations to the Department of Transportation.
McGee's new book about the state of American air travel is called "Attention All Passengers: The Airlines' Dangerous Descent and How to Reclaim Our Skies." William McGee, welcome to FRESH AIR. Good to have you. You know, a lot of our younger listeners don't remember the earlier days of aviation, when people really looked forward to flying and sometimes dressed up for it. And you say in this book you have always been in love with flying. Give us a sense of your history with aviation.
WILLIAM MCGEE: Sure, thanks very much for having me on. One of the things I point out in the book is the first time I went to an airport, when I was five years old, and I was dressed in a suit and tie and a white shirt and black shoes, and I wasn't even flying. I was there to pick up my brother, who was home on leave from the Army.
And as I was researching this book and interviewing people, many old-timers in and out of the industry said similar things to me, you know, they remember the good old days, and they remember the piano bars and the steak and the champagne and all of that. And, you know, the fact is, commercial flying in the United States and around the world, for that matter, has changed dramatically.
And of course the watershed event was in 1978, when the industry was deregulated, and the purpose was to make flying available to the masses, and that's happened, but along the way some good things have happened and some bad things have happened, and that's really the genesis for this book.
DAVIES: Right, I have to ask you, you say piano bars and steak? You're referring to the terminals?
MCGEE: No, I'm talking about onboard 747s, actually, back in the day, in the early '70s, yeah. Those were the - you know, those were the halcyon days for the industry. You know, again, I've spoken to people who remember that, and I'm not even talking about in business class or first class.
I mean I can remember as a young person, you know, getting a steak dinner in economy class. But things have changed dramatically, and air travel has really become a commodity. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is that I was trying to get a handle on exactly what this industry is.
Is it a public service and therefore a public good and in some way should be regulated by the government? Is it, you know, a free market enterprise? And I don't think the answer is a clear black or white. I think it's both.
DAVIES: You mentioned that in 1978, that was when airlines were deregulated. Just give us a thumbnail sense of what - how the industry looked then. How was it different? How was the role of government different before 1978?
MCGEE: Well, in those days, the CAB, the Civil Aeronautics Board, regulated the industry to the point where it determined where an airline could fly, how much it could charge. It basically, you know, performed all of the functions of an airline scheduling department. And so, you know, an airline couldn't just say, well, we're going to launch service from, you know, Cleveland to Denver. It had to receive government permission for it, and the government set the fares.
DAVIES: The government set the fares, right?
DAVIES: They weren't jumping all over, around, and changing every Tuesday?
MCGEE: No, absolutely not, and so what that meant, since the fares were regulated, and they talk about fare buckets, in other words certain cities would be in the same bucket - say, New York and Washington and Boston, the fares would be the same to Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego from those cities - what that meant was that airlines competed on service. It was all about who had the friendliest flight attendants and who had the best food on board and the - you know, the best drinks and all the rest of it.
DAVIES: All right, so we had deregulation because the idea was competition would lower fares, far more people would get to fly, and we'd bring the benefits of competition to the industry and to its consumers, and your book is about some of the ways that that's changed that aren't so good. Let's talk about some of them.
Something as simple as baggage. You introduce us to something called the unclaimed baggage center in Scottsboro, Alabama. I'd never heard of this. Explain what this place is.
MCGEE: I was down there last year. It's not an easy place to find. Ironically, it's not near any airports. And I drove into Scottsboro, and here is this huge facility, it's probably the size of four or five of your average-size Walmarts. And in effect, all of the lost and unclaimed baggage in the United States eventually finds its way onto tractor trailers and winds up in Scottsboro.
And then it's sorted, and whatever's deemed available for resale is put on sale there. And when I say everything, I mean everything, not just, you know, iPads and all kinds of electronic goodies, but wedding dresses and suits of armor and photographs of Mickey Mantle for whatever reason have not been claimed by their rightful owners.
It just sort of underscores how much baggage is mishandled in the industry because every day the trucks arrive in Scottsboro.
DAVIES: Somebody shipped a suit of armor and it was lost?
MCGEE: Yes, exactly. You would think you'd notice that you - that you left that behind, but...
DAVIES: And so consumers can walk into that place and buy this leftover stuff, and the money, what, gets divvied up among the airlines or what?
MCGEE: No, the way that the business model works there is that the unclaimed baggage center is independent, and they have contracts with airlines, and they buy sight unseen. So they have no idea when they buy a suitcase that's been locked whether or not it contains, you know, dirty underwear or, you know, rare stamps. So they just buy in bulk, and then they sort through it all.
A lot of it is given to charity as well, some of the clothing and whatnot, but most of it is resold.
DAVIES: Now, do we have far more - a lot more baggage being damaged or mishandled or lost since deregulation?
MCGEE: One of the things deregulation did was just dramatically increase the size of the industry in terms of the number of passengers carried and the number of aircraft that are flying around the United States. And the United States, of course, is the largest air market in the world.
But having said that, in recent years - I think there's a general perception out there, I know I have - I encounter it all the time. I hear from people who say airline service has gotten worse in recent years. And you know, I looked into that. There are statistics that are provided by the Department of Transportation on a monthly basis, and it's sort of, you know, a bit of a mountain range.
It goes up and down, and there are good months and bad months, but in general there are more consumer complaints, and one of things that I really looked at, which I don't think has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, is something that the industry calls a load factor, which is a fancy term that basically means the percentage of seats that are occupied.
And if you look at that, I think all the other problems stem from that, because basically it's not your imagination that there are more people flying on each flight. For most of the history of the industry, with the exception of the World War II years, when the airlines were effectively troop carriers, the average load factors, the average percentage of occupied seats on a plane, were about 60 percent, sometimes 70 percent.
These days they're over 80 percent on average. So that means a great number of flights are at 100 percent, as I've seen myself recently while flying. And those load factors that are so high, in other words the airlines are squeezing more and more people into planes, they've led to all of the other problems related to service: delays, canceled flights, lost baggage, and passengers being involuntarily bumped off flights and in general the sort of air-rage issues that I also discuss in the book. Flying is just not a pleasant experience.
DAVIES: Now, just to come back to baggage for a moment - you say that complaints of mishandled and damaged bags spiked when the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration - do I have the acronym right?
MCGEE: Yes, right.
DAVIES: Took over screening. What does that mean? Are government employees rifling our bags?
MCGEE: There have been a lot of, you know, high-profile cases of TSA employees that take bags into the back room, and when they come back, you know, things are missing. And to some extent, you know, the TSA has managed to get a handle on that. But it's really part of a much larger systemic problem within the industry, and that is that the airline industry right now, I don't think the average passenger realizes how many functions revolving around commercial aviation are outsourced.
And outsourcing is a very, very big part of this book, everything from maintenance to customer service to baggage handling. The airline industry has pared down its workforce in recent years to the point where just about every possible function in the industry has been outsourced, and even things that back when I worked in the airline industry in the 1980s we would joke about being outsourced are now regularly outsourced, to the point where some airlines are even experimenting with outsourcing crew members.
And I don't think many passengers realize that when they're in an airport and there's some sort of a problem and they walk up to a ticket counter and they're speaking to someone who's wearing the uniform of an airline employee that in many cases they're not an airline employee.
DAVIES: We're speaking with William McGee. His new book is called "Attention All Passengers." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with William McGee. He spent many years working in the airline industry. He now writes about it and was the consumer representative to the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee for the federal government. He has a new book about cost-cutting in airlines and its effects. It's called "Attention All Passengers: The Airlines' Dangerous Descent and How to Reclaim Our Skies."
You write that more and more carriers are outsourcing maintenance of their aircraft to smaller companies. What sort of challenges does that present - for example for regulators who are supposed to keep track of this?
MCGEE: Yes, this is an issue I've been following for several years now. I worked in the airline industry for seven years before I started writing about it, and quite frankly, I always felt that I had a pretty good handle on the industry. And it wasn't until about 2006, when Consumer Reports asked me to launch an investigation into this topic, that I realized just how much had changed so quickly.
Just in the last decade, since September 11, the percentage of outsourced maintenance in the United States has quadrupled, and what we're faced with now is that all of the major airlines in the United States, with one exception, now outsource most of what the industry calls heavy maintenance - that is, the major maintenance that is done on aircraft.
In some cases it's outsourced to companies in the United States. In many cases it's outsourced outside the United States in developing countries. Work is done in El Salvador, Mexico, Singapore, China.
DAVIES: Of course the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA, does have safety regulations for airlines, and there are maintenance rules they are supposed to follow. And I gather they've historically had FAA offices near the airlines, where they could kind of keep an eye on their shops and how they were maintaining planes. How has outsourcing affected the FAA's ability to keep track of what's going on?
MCGEE: In my view, this is the most critical safety issue that the airline industry faces now, is the FAA's lack of oversight of outsourced maintenance. And this is not an opinion that I formed myself. This is an opinion that I formed after spending the last six years speaking to dozens and dozens of frontline FAA inspectors, the people that are on the ground.
And you're right - in the old days the model was very simple. If an airline had a major maintenance facility, whether it was in Atlanta or Houston or Kennedy Airport in New York, the FAA had its office overseeing that work, usually located within just a few miles. And those inspectors, on a 24/7 basis, could pop in at any time, they call it kicking the tires, and watch the work being done.
Now, with the work being done in El Salvador or China, I've had dozens of inspectors express to me their frustration that they simply can't do their jobs. They're monitoring this work basically on an honor system. The airline is reporting back to them that the work is being done. And there are a lot of electronic tools to provide surveillance, but the fact is the inspectors are not able on a regular basis to get to where the work is being done.
DAVIES: And tell us: What does it mean when we say that the maintenance - do they fly an aircraft to a facility in El Salvador or China and get it worked on there? Or are parts sent to one place or another?
MCGEE: Yes, absolutely, the airlines ferry the aircraft empty in many cases. In some cases they might actually have flights in that area, but in the case of El Salvador and in China, in many cases the aircraft are ferried there empty, and they come back empty.
I've also spoken to dozens of mechanics from major airlines to talk about the condition of the aircraft when they get back and how they're not ready to be put back into service until they sort of get, you know, a follow-up inspection from the inspectors in-house.
This is all about cost, of course, and the facilities overseas are able to charge much, much less, because in many cases, unfortunately, the mechanics - and I'm using the term with quotation marks around it - the mechanics are not licensed mechanics. They're what they call technicians.
DAVIES: Licensed by the FAA?
MCGEE: Licensed by the FAA or even by the regulatory agencies in their own countries. And so it's hard to understate just how dramatic a change this is. And to put it in simple terms - say, back when I worked at Pan Am, Pan Am had a major maintenance facility at Kennedy Airport in New York. And if a 747, say, was having a job done that required 10 people to do it, what you had was you had 10 licensed mechanics, certified by the FAA, do that job.
And one of those mechanics signed the book and took responsibility that it was done right. Now what you have in many cases is that same type of work is being done overseas by 10 unlicensed, uncertificated mechanics, but the paperwork is still being signed by that one licensed mechanic. As far as the FAA is concerned, if the work is being certified by a mechanic, then it's the same.
DAVIES: You said that mechanics told you they would have planes come back from some of these far-flung maintenance facilities and that they weren't really ready to fly. Can you give us an example? What did they see that troubled them?
MCGEE: Sure. Among the problems they've talked about are doors that were not sealed properly, which of course could lead to a lack of pressurization and an in-flight emergency, in one case a door that was reinstalled backwards. There are problems with engines that have had to be shut down, and there's a serious problem with conditions that have led to smoke in the cabins.
And of course any time you have smoke in the cabin on an aircraft that's at 35,000 feet, that could lead to catastrophe. These airplanes are coming back in conditions where additional work is needed just get them back online, in many cases. Not in all cases, but in some cases.
DAVIES: You write about one crash in 2003, this was a US Airways flight from Charlotte to Greenville, and you think this was actually connected to this phenomenon?
MCGEE: Well, not only do I think it was connected, but the National Transportation Safety Board said it was connected.
DAVIES: Tell us what happened, yeah.
MCGEE: In this case it was not an overseas maintenance facility, it was a domestic maintenance facility that was being outsourced. And in this case the rigging on a very critical function, an elevator control system, was done improperly. And upon takeoff, just seconds after taking off, the aircraft crashed, and everyone onboard was killed.
And the National Transportation Safety Board, which of course is an independent government agency, independent of the Department of Transportation and the FAA, their report was very clear. It said that this was due to the outsourcing of maintenance and the FAA's lack of oversight of that maintenance. This was in 2003.
Prior to that, of course, back in 1996, there was a very high-profile accident that also was due to outsourced maintenance, and that was the ValueJet crash, where the aircraft crashed in the Everglades in Florida, and all onboard were killed.
We've been seeing these warning signs, and quite frankly, they're being ignored.
DAVIES: I was shocked to read in the book that the FAA doesn't require the major carriers to even list their subcontractors?
MCGEE: You know, when I started investigating this issue, I can't tell you how naive I was. I thought this would be something where, you know, if I spent a little time looking at the record, that I could, you know, piece this together. And one of the first things I did was say, well, OK, where are U.S. airlines outsourcing their work, and who are they outsourcing it to?
And as an investigative reporter, I thought, well, that's a pretty simple thing. I was absolutely shocked to find out that not only could I not find that out, the FAA itself has been unable to find this out, and this has been documented and documented in congressional hearings, where independent government organizations, including the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation Inspector General's Office, have gone to the airlines and said: OK, where is the work being done and who's doing it?
And the airlines, amazingly, have responded that they're not clear, in some cases. They're not sure who's doing the work. Now, to me, this is just mind-boggling because to think that in the 21st century it would be a simple matter of, you know, contacting the accounts payable department and saying where are you cutting checks, you know, somebody must have a handle on this. And yet congressional testimony has shown that the FAA does not even have a full sense of where the work is being done.
And in many cases - this is where it's, you know, the bizarre gets even more bizarre, the outsourced facilities outsource themselves. So in some cases you have two and even three degrees of separation from the outsource company. In one case that I looked at, critical work on an aircraft was being done by a surfboard repair shop in California, and the FAA immediately sort of stepped in and stopped that.
DAVIES: Critical work?
MCGEE: Yes. That was that basically a body panel on an aircraft was made from a material that was similar to surfboard, was, you know, was given to an outsourced shop, and they in turn contacted a surfboard shop. Unfortunately, the gentleman running the surfboard shop had no FAA certification and had never worked on an aircraft before.
DAVIES: William McGee's book is called "Attention All Passengers: The Airlines' Dangerous Descent and How to Reclaim Our Skies." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who is off this week. We're talking about the state of American air travel with William McGee, a former airlines operations manager who has made a career as an aviation writer. In 2010, he was named the sole consumer advocate to the Department of Transportation's Future of Aviation Advisory Committee. In a new book, McGee argues that competition among deregulated airlines has led to such aggressive cost-cutting that air travel these days is filled with delays, lost baggage, hidden fees and poor service. Worse, McGee says, airlines are cutting corners on critical areas, like airline airplane maintenance and training that compromise safety in the skies. McGee's book is called "Attention All Passengers."
One of the things you write about is the increasing use of regional carriers. You know, we have the big legacy carriers, the names we know and then often a part of your journey will be on a smaller carrier.
When you get a ticket and board a plane, do you really know whether you're flying a Delta or United or American Airlines plane?
MCGEE: Well, the good news is the Department of Transportation - particularly under the current secretary, Raymond LaHood - has been rather proactive about trying to increase that awareness. And I'm very happy to say that there have been several initiatives in recent years that have come from the DOT that are requiring more transparencies so that at the booking process passengers are aware, by the way, you know, you're booking a flight on Delta or United or American or US Airways but in fact, it's going to be operated by XYZ elements. Unfortunately, there are still tremendous number of passengers who are not aware when they're flying on a regional carrier. And my position is whether or not you want to fly on a regional carrier is your own personal call but you should have the information at your disposal to know when you're not going to be flying on what the industry calls the mainline carrier.
DAVIES: Now what difference does that make? I mean aren't the regional carriers subject to the same safety regulations and maintenance procedures as the big ones?
MCGEE: Well, that is the key question. And, in fact, in theory the answer is yes. But in practice, you know, I'm told time and again that that's just not the case. And, in fact, if you look at the safety record for the airline industry in the United States over the last 10 years, it sort of speaks for itself. As far as the mainline carriers go, the safety record has been excellent. There's only been one fatal crash back in 2001 with American Airlines in Rockaway, New York. But since that time, smaller U.S. carriers, we've had six fatal accidents, and five of those six fatal accidents were regional carriers operating on the behalf of the major carriers.
So I can tell you that I have spoken to family members of victims who were killed in these crashes and nothing angers them more than to hear a statement from a journalist or from the airline industry or trade organization or even from the FAA itself, that says there has been no, quote, "major" airline accident in the United States since 2001, because their loved ones for tickets on major carriers and were killed in those five accidents even though they weren't operated by those major carriers, that's who sold them the tickets.
DAVIES: You write about 2009 crash on a flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Buffalo and the people there thought they were buying a Continental Airlines ticket. You want to tell us about that crash and what it tells us about this issue?
MCGEE: Sure. I think that was a watershed event, the Colgan Air accident in 2009. And I think it sort of crystallized all of the issues we're talking about. The fact is the airline industry claims, and the FAA to an extent, has claimed that there is one standard for U.S. carriers. And that accident pointed out that in fact, there isn't. Now that accident highlighted that, in fact, unfortunately both crew members were killed in that accident as well, but those crew members did not have the same type of experience or training that crew members at major carriers would have had under similar circumstances.
DAVIES: Well, give us some details. I mean what caused the crash? And in what ways did the relative inexperience of the crew matter?
MCGEE: Well, it was an accident that the National Transportation Safety Board said was directly related to pilot error. And in that case, the captain of that flight responded improperly to a sort of basic aeronautical function, which is responding to a stick shaker indicating that the aircraft is losing control. This is something that's sort of standardized throughout the industry in training and unfortunately, this captain responded to it in the worst possible way and it led to tragedy. And when I talk to people in the industry, you know, they sort of express shock at this, that a routine circumstance led to such tragedy. And this accident, the Colgan Air accident in 2009, led to Congressional hearings on this topic.
And the families of the victims of that crash deserve tremendous credit because they're the ones that drove through legislation that strengthens standards for regional carriers, which Congress passed and which President Obama signed. But unfortunately, Congressional hearings held just a few months ago in 2012, indicate that although the bill was passed, we're still not there. According to government inspectors, regional carriers in many cases are still not up to speed when it comes to hiring and training.
DAVIES: I mean it was shocking what some of the pilots in the regional carriers make. I mean it's, you know, bus drivers make more in some cases.
MCGEE: Oh, no question. And the first officer in the Colgan Air case I think after the accident, you know, received quite a bit of attention because it was, you know, it was revealed that her salary was less than $20,000 a year. She had a tremendously long commute. She was based out of Newark, New Jersey, but she lived in Seattle, Washington. And, of course, many pilots commute but they usually have rest before they commute. She, on the day of the crash, she commuted from Seattle to New York and then flew and at, you know, at one point in her career she was working as a waitress in a coffee shop.
I've spoken to a lot of crew members and a lot of people in the airline industry that talk about this issue. The fact is that the cost-cutting that is going on in the airline industry, it affects every aspect of the operation now. It's not just about baggage fees or charging you for a Coke, or charging you for a window seat. It affects crew pay. It affects maintenance. It affects everything.
DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about fares. You got any tips for finding good fares? It's so bewildering. They're all over the place. They seem to change day-to-day.
MCGEE: Well, you have to shop around. It's like the old song. And people don't want to hear that. They're looking for a silver bullet. But the fact is it is such a dynamic industry. There are billions, literally billions with a B, of fares downloaded into computer reservation systems every single day. And if you're looking for the best fare, you can't just look in one place. Having said that, there are some tricks of the trade and, you know, some of them are pretty basic. It helps to shop on Tuesdays, for example, in the afternoon and evening when new fares are often loaded. Not to say they can't be loaded into systems at other times, but that's a good time.
It also helps to tweak your itinerary a little bit. You'd be amazed what you can find. If you look at nearby airports, sometimes very, very close, you know, nearby, within 20 or 30 miles, and playing with the day and time. Sometimes a difference of two or three hours can mean hundreds of dollars.
DAVIES: You know, you write that there used to be really two categories of tickets, you know, economy tickets and first-class - and I guess now there's business class. But you say there are really are, far more of them. Do these ticket categories affect anything besides the fare you pay? I mean like the way you get treated?
MCGEE: Absolutely. One of the dirty little secrets of the airline business is that not all passengers are created equal, even within the same classes. So and we all know that first and business class passengers are treated better than those in economy or coach, and that curtain is there to remind us just in case we forget, you know, don't use the restroom up front. That's not for you.
DAVIES: Right. Right.
MCGEE: But I've spoken to many airline employees about this and let's say that a flight is canceled - and let's just keep the numbers easy to work with - and let's say there are a hundred passengers that have now been told that their flight is canceled and there is no further flights available that evening. Those hundred passengers, when they storm that ticket counter and say OK, what's going on, and when they call reservations or go online, the first thing the airline is going to do, whether it's a person or a computer, is going to look at the fare basis code, is going to look at the fare. They're going to look not only at how much you pay but when you bought that ticket and, very importantly, where you bought that ticket. And there is a hierarchy. And buying it through the airline directly, you're a little higher up. If you buy it through a third party, say Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, you're a little further down the chain. You buy it through a wholesaler or consolidator, you're even further down. If you buy it through say, Priceline, you know, what they call an opaque travel site, when you bided in the blind, well, you're pretty far down.
And so you may have paid $1,200 for a seat two seats away from me in economy class and I paid $600. You're more likely to be re-accommodated first. You're more likely to perhaps receive a voucher in some cases, you know, for ground transportation or a meal or even, you know, lodging in some cases. We're not all treated equally. And so, you know, all those long codes that are written on your ticket, they mean something, maybe not to the passenger but they mean an awful lot to the airline.
DAVIES: You know...
MCGEE: And, no, we're not treated equally.
DAVIES: My favorite horror story is one a few years back. My wife and I were going to take our kids to spring training and watch baseball in Florida. And she was traveling alone and was flying on a carrier. She - they were slow getting her to her connecting flight. And she ran through the airport with a boarding pass in hand. The flight had not left yet and was told they had given her seat away and she spent the night at the airport and lost a day of vacation. Even - this was amazing to me. I always thought a boarding pass meant you had a seat. I guess it doesn't mean that anymore.
DAVIES: But, so she had the wrong class ticket, I guess.
MCGEE: Yeah. Absolutely. And, you know, there was a hierarchy and somebody obviously, you know, in the airline's estimation was a more valuable customer than she was. The airlines often use a term. The airline executives openly use this term, I talk about it in the book, they refer to, you know, high yield business travelers. That is corporate travelers who book at the last minute and pay very high fares. They refer to them as their best customers. And that's a nice thing to say, but obviously you can flip that and you can look at those that, you know, buy a ticket three months out to go to Disney World, if they are the best then I guess those customers are the worst customers.
DAVIES: You served as the consumer representative on the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee. Explain what that was and what we got out of it.
MCGEE: Right. In 2010, Secretary Raymond LaHood of the DOT, formed this committee. There were 17 members. I was the only representative on behalf of the consumers. There were labor representatives and others on the committee. Overwhelmingly, the most number of members were airline executives. And we broke off into five separate subcommittees, most of those subcommittees were headed by airline executives. I think the intentions overall for the committee were good. But in the end I think unfortunately, the interest of the airlines were prevalent. And whether it was on customer service issues, to which I think Secretary LaHood was quite responsive, or on safety issues, where I think, unfortunately, the DOT and its subordinate agency, the FAA, have not been as responsive.
DAVIES: Well, William McGee, it's been interesting. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
MCGEE: Thank you very much, Dave.
DAVIES: William McGee is a former airline operations manager who has made a career as an aviation writer. His new book is called "Attention All Passengers."
Coming up, we remember Nora Ephron, who died yesterday at the age of 71. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.