More reasons to fly privately

May 22, 2016 - 7:45 PM

I once referred to New York’s LaGuardia Airport as aviation’s equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta, but several readers objected, on the ground that the comparison was unfair to the Black Hole. After all, one reader argued, apologists for 18th century colonial misdeeds by the East India Company luridly overstated the horrors of the prison in Calcutta, but nobody overstates the miseries of airports like LaGuardia.

For example, assuming you exited the Black Hole alive, you could at least look forward to a nice cup of tea. At LaGuardia, you drag your Rollaboard through mobs of morose travelers sprawling on the floor because there’s no place to sit in the departure-gate waiting areas. Then there’s a line of 40 people at a counter where you could, if you had the patience, buy a $6 cup of coffee that wouldn’t pass muster at a Salvation Army canteen. Next you trudge through dank, low-ceiling warrens, cringing at the announcements braying from loudspeakers that recall Brave New World, preposterously warning you not to accept packages from strangers. Finally you’re outside, in the fetid air of Queens, waiting for an hour in a snaking line for a $40 taxi ride into Manhattan.

Not long ago, I arrived in New York after a long flight from Arizona with a connection in the overcrowded Denver airport, where I noticed long lines to the single ladies room in one terminal that resembled the queues for tickets to Springsteen concerts. The next morning, I met with a business friend who, like me, had just landed in town after a long-weekend ski vacation. But he came by private jet with his family.

“So how was your trip in?” he said.
“Don’t ask. I had to get up at 3:30 in the morning and spend most of the day crammed into middle seats on two planes because I don’t have elite status anymore. How was your trip?”“Not bad,” he said. “My daughter always complains about the long drive to the airport in Aspen. But on the flight, I was able to work for hours while the kids watched videos and my wife caught up on sleep.”

So there you have it. Like most people with easy access to a business jet, my friend flies commercial only when it makes sense, which he says is seldom these days, with airlines ­packing their planes to capacity while reducing service on all levels.

Since you’re reading this magazine, you’re likely in the same fortunate position as my friend and able to fly privately most or all of the time. If so, you might be interested in an update on what you’re missing by avoiding airlines as the summer crush in air travel rolls in from the horizon like a dark thunderstorm. Aside from deteriorating in-flight service and comfort, rising fares and fees, and a devaluation of elite-status loyalty programs that has infuriated frequent fliers, the biggest hassle you’ll avoid in a business jet this summer is the one managed by the Transportation Security Administration. After years of gradually improving customer service, especially with the evolution of the PreCheck expedited security lanes for travelers deemed to pose no security risk, the TSA seems to have collapsed once more into its sullen bureaucracy, while complaining that Congress is being stingy with its budget, which totals about $7 billion a year.  

In many airports, PreCheck lanes now aren’t even open for some periods during the day, due to what the TSA—which employs more than 45,000 screeners—claims are staff shortages. PreCheck aside, overall security lines started growing last winter, to the point where airports are up in arms.

For example, consider the dire letter that Miguel Southwell, the administrator of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, sent to TSA headquarters late last winter. “The airport is dreading the outcome of summer 2016,” as passenger demand grows and TSA backups routinely exceed an hour, he wrote. Another airport chief, Jeffrey Hamiel at Minneapolis St. Paul, wrote to the TSA about “unacceptable customer service” as security wait times increased.  

At the Denver airport, security backups sometimes exceed two hours, causing travelers to miss flights. By spring, airlines were posting notices on their websites warning travelers to arrive at some airports at least two hours before flight time.

Around the country, disgruntled airport officials have been threatening to opt for something Congress (bowing to lobbying by security businesses) built into the legislation that created the TSA: the option to oust that agency from the checkpoints and hire private contractors to handle security. San Francisco International is the biggest airport currently using private contractors for checkpoint security, but the signs are growing that other airports might hire contractors, with unknown implications for both security and customer service.

At the same time, long-suffering airline crews are complaining on two fronts. One is that airlines keep raising fares and fees while wallowing in record profits (the four top airlines alone made a record $22 billion in profits last year), and squeezing workforces with cost cutting that has even created pilot shortages throughout the industry.

The other has to do with customer service. In March, the union for pilots at American Airlines protested pay cuts in a letter to company officials that also criticized the plight of passengers. The product “is outright embarrassing, and we’re tired of apologizing to our customers,” said the letter.

“Sure, we got a response,” a longtime American pilot and union activist told me with a sour chuckle. “Basically they said to stop apologizing to the passengers, then. Problem solved.”
Aren’t you glad you fly privately?  


Joe Sharkey (jsharkey@bjtonline.com), the author of six books and a longtime BJT contributor, wrote a weekly business travel column for the New York Times for 16 years.