U.S. Air Travel Woes Reflect Bigger Infrastructure Issues

U.S. airport infrastructure
U.S. airport infrastructure

If you spend a lot of time on planes for work, there were probably very few surprises in this year's "Best of Business Travel" Awards from Business Traveler magazine. Of the 53 awards presented earlier this month, Air Canada took home five – including Best North American Airline for International Travel, for Business-Class Service, for In-Flight Services and for its Flight Attendants.

Two South Korean airlines, Asiana and Korean Air, were honored for having the Best Overall Customer Service, Best In-Flight Services, Best Trans-Pacific Business-Class Service and Best Flight Attendants in the world.

From a purely patriotic standpoint, I'm saddened that relatively few American carriers made it to this year's Business Traveler list for either domestic or international service. To be fair, United Airlines (UAL) did win Best Airline for North American Travel -- but considering the U.S. helped to pioneer commercial aviation, our standards have fallen pretty low in recent years.

Some analysts say the apparent malaise affecting U.S. airlines may go beyond the current economic downturn to something more fundamental: a national gap in transportation infrastructure.

Playing Catch-Up With Business Clientele

Let's focus first on business travelers. While not the largest group of commercial passengers, they certainly punch above their weight when it comes to the percentage of airline revenue they generate. And after the past several years of economic belt-tightening, business travel is on the rebound. A recent report from the International Air Transport Association says the number of passengers traveling up-front, in business-class and first-class seats, was nearly 11% higher this past October than for the same period a year earlier.

But most U.S. carriers are playing catch-up when it comes to accommodating their lucrative business clientele. Many airlines and airports outside of the U.S. have been specifically targeting business travelers with extensive support services like free WiFi and mobile charging stations for electronics (one U.S. exception, according to Business Traveler, is Denver International Airport – which won the Best North American Airport award).

And there's been a lot more emphasis in recent years on getting passengers to and from airports to major metropolitan areas. "It's all about ease of travel," says Business Traveler Editor-in-Chief Eva Leonard, "about helping travelers achieve seamless travel."

A Vanishing "Culture of Service"

But that seamless travel is becoming more of a dream for passengers using American airports and airlines. "The U.S. airline industry has thought of itself as being separate from other modes of transportation," says Andrew Goetz, professor and faculty member in the University of Denver's Intermodal Institute and the Urban Studies Program. "They don't see themselves as a part of an intermodal system. So there's very little support in the airline industry, and even in the airport community, for more effective ground transportation [and] ground access -- even though they recognize better ground transportation would help airlines and airports."

The recent economic downturn has not only affected what Goetz calls the "culture of service" on most American carriers but it's also creating dilemmas for local governments having to make hard choices between desperately needed investment in transportation infrastructure and balancing their already-tight budgets. "Funding sources are going to be getting tighter for [transportation] projects that are going to make that kind of seamlessness feasible," he says -- noting that the newly elected governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have pledged to give back hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for proposed high-speed rail projects in their states.

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Goetz worries that such budget balancing is shortsighted. "To be competitive in the future, in terms of our economic productivity, I would say investing in this transportation infrastructure -- good, solid, sound projects -- makes all the sense in the world," he says.

"Look at what China is doing," he points out. "They have a lot of capital, and they're investing in transportation infrastructure. They're building high-speed rail, they're building connections to their airports, they're building airports. It's at a scale that probably rivals, or maybe exceeds, what we were doing in the '50 and '60s, when we were building the interstate highway system and building airports, building a lot of infrastructure. Those things are fundamental to long-term economic growth."

Airline passengers in the U.S. stuck waiting for their flight have plenty of time to read about China's future-looking infrastructure projects and ponder the implications.

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