How Industry and Media Drive U.S. Aviation Debate

Editor's Note: Today, we are pleased to have an opinion post by an industry thought leader Greg Principato

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No One Is Interested, No One Understands

When I was President of Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) from 2005-2013, I spent a great deal of time trying to interest the media and policy makers in the issues of how airports were funded and financed, how they were run and so on.  It was a constant struggle.  The funding and financing structure was out of date and inadequate to modern times?  Who cares!  Too hard to explain!  Boring!

The airlines were responsible for air service and lost baggage?  Well, the flight no longer comes to the airport!  The bag was lost at the airport!  It is an airport issue! You must be trying to duck responsibility! Security?  Passenger facilitation?  Well, the guy slipped through with a sharp object at the airport!  The elderly lady was patted down at the airport!  The planeload of passengers was stuck in the arrivals hall at the airport!

Food and beverage and retail?  Why are airports trying to be shopping malls anyway?  Why is public money being spent to sell magazines, coffee and shirts?  Passengers might/need want that stuff?  No, it must be an airport plot to make money!

Airports are prepared for safety and security problems that may arise?  Nah!  Can’t be true!  Anyway, who cares if they are prepared?  It’s only news, only an issue, if something goes wrong.  And then we don’t care whether the public understands or not.

Enter Vice President Biden

I recall talking to an aviation correspondent for ABC News, who told me of her unsuccessful struggles to get her editors interested in such issues.  I spoke with a top editor at the Economist, who was interested at first, but whose publication never followed up.

And then along came Vice President Joseph Biden (Full disclosure: I worked on his Senate staff from 1982-86), saying on more than one occasion that American airports are more like developing country airports and that they do not measure up, in any way, to airports in places like Singapore or Hong Kong (though those places are hardly developing).  The media all of a sudden became interested in airports.  Maybe not for the right reasons, but at least they were interested.

So, what does this mean?  Will the American airport industry be able to take advantage of the “attention”?  Who cares if airports overseas have better food and beverage options; if they are more comfortable for travelers, if they have bigger immigration halls or better customs technology?  Who cares if their restrooms are cleaner?

What Vice President Biden did, intentionally or not, was tap into the American urge to be the best at whatever we do, or to at least not be embarrassed by what we do.  And this should not just be about the airport side of the equation.  Airlines, labor, concessionaires and other all ought to be looking for ways to use the attention the Vice President’s words have cast to make the case for airports, for their importance to the economy, and to work with other aviation industry sectors to enact policies that make much more sense in the 21st century.  And they have a perfect opportunity with the basic law authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration set to expire in 11 months and due to be reauthorized.

This Time Is Like The Other Times

But two things are conspiring to keep that from happening:

First, is the Ebola situation.  And second is the fact that all facets of the industry, so far, are just retreating to their corners to argue their classic positions on the range of aviation finance issues, thereby passing on the opportunity to work together to forge a new future.

Regarding the American response to Ebola, media are hyping the story for all it is worth.  CNN, which devoted most of a month to the issue of the missing flight MH370 is now All Ebola All The Time.  Whenever there is a shred of news, or even some kind of change, it is reported as “breaking.”  Worse, there is normally a frightening headline splashed across the bottom of the screen for all to see, telling us that the bedding from the first Ebola victim in the U.S. hadn’t been changed in days, or more recently, splashing figures across the screen about how many new cases we might expect to see in coming weeks and months (leading many who see it to believe many of those cases will be in their own neighborhoods).

Please do not think I believe this is not a major world story, deserving of much coverage.  It is both of those.  But more than anything, it is deserving of clearly communicated and accurate information.  It is deserving of leadership.  I must say that industry has stepped up on this issue.  Globally, Airports Council International (ACI World) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have joined with other stakeholders to take constructive action and convey important and high level information.  Their regional counterparts, including my former association (ACI-NA) are pulling their weight and performing important service.  ACI Europe’s statement of October 14th is one of the most sensible I have seen on the topic.  Of course, that has not stopped the media from “reporting” that screening will be carried out “by” airports, even though the truth is that it will be carried out by public health officials “at” airports.

But I know from experience that when industry groups address topics such as these they are often seen as defensive; and not just because the media likes to portray them that way.  It just sounds, to the man on the street’s ear, defensive.  And, frankly, the media does not exist to lead the public, or really even to educate it (a philosophical discussion that could last for hours over some fine wine).

Public Leadership Needed in Aviation

This is where public sector leadership comes in.  Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the United States belong to those who want to ban flights from the three most impacted countries (the fact there are NO flights from those countries does not seem to matter).  At one congressional hearing last week, an important congressman tried to make the case that a major airport in his state should ban certain flights, even though it has no authority to do so.  The surest way of shortening the Ebola problem is to defeat it where it is most virulent.  We cannot do that by drawing a curtain around the region.

And as to whether U.S. aviation interests will take advantage of the light the Vice President has shined on the industry, early returns do not look so good.  Airlines and airports are each using Biden’s comments to advance their own agenda, even though there is plenty of room for both to come together and design a whole new system to finance infrastructure, air traffic control security and facilitation.  No one likes the current system.  But, again as I learned from experience, even if some in industry want to come together to change things, their motives are suspect.  We do not need sound bites and we certainly do not need blame.  We need leadership from elected and appointed officials on these matters; leadership which will likely not be forthcoming.

I could say the same about security and a host of other issues.

Back to the Future

Many of you reading this blog post do not live in the United States, but given the travel that begins or ends here, what we do here is of some interest around the world.  As I write future posts on New Airport Insider, I will attempt to shine a light on how things get done and decided (or not decided) here; even when examining issues of global importance.

Vice President Biden’s comments have drawn a lot of attention around the world.  They have certainly drawn a lot of attention here in the United States.  Once we have “defeated” Ebola and even after we have done the same to ISIS and their ilk, the problems he observed will remain.  What will be done about them?  Will anyone care?

The answers to those questions remain open.

Images by Stephan.

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