After almost two years of campaigning, here is what we know about Democrat Barack Obama’s and Republican John McCain’s positions on issues that affect business travelers: Nothing. Nada. Zip.
Save for a passing reference to “port security” by Senator Obama in the second debate, the candidates have been mum about the panoply of topics that affect our lives on the road. This information blackout isn’t new, of course. Presidential candidates never talk travel issues. Not even Al Gore, who had fronted a Clinton Administration “aviation safety and security commission,” created after the TWA Flight 800 crash in 1996.
But just because the soon-to-be President Elect won’t talk about business travel and his job comes with a nifty private jet and a cool personal helicopter doesn’t mean that he won’t have to address our concerns during the next four years. After all, the global business-travel market is worth an estimated $200 billion annually.
When you go to your polling place next Tuesday, keep these presidential-level travel issues in mind. We may not know where Obama or McCain stand, but we know that this is the landscape that all travelers must negotiate during the next four years.
Terror in the Skies
The current iteration of the global war on terror began at the airports on September 11, 2001, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warns that the bad guys know the electoral realities. “Any period of transition creates a greater vulnerability, meaning there’s more likelihood of distraction,” Chertoff told Bloomberg last week. “You have to be concerned it will create an operational opportunity for terrorists.”
The next president will also have to assess the effectiveness of the Transportation Security Administration, which has grown bloated, bureaucratic, and inflexible in just seven years. Critics point out it has done little to secure our passenger-rail system, fully screen cargo on passenger aircraft, or create a viable and acceptably unobtrusive terrorist watch list. The new president’s T.S.A. administrator will have to decide whether to lift the current — and much despised — restrictions on in-flight liquids; Chertoff hinted last month that it might be time to eliminate the so-called 3-1-1 rules.
The State of the Airline Industry
The challenges facing the next president and his new Secretary of Transportation are daunting. The six major network carriers have been trying to consolidate for years, but only the proposed Delta-Northwest merger has materialized. The Bush Administration may rule on that deal before it departs, of course, but that will only raise further questions: Are fewer, larger carriers a solution to the endemic problems in the airline industry? Or will further consolidation create airlines that are “too big to fail” and require a federal bailout?
Many critics feel the 1978 deregulation of the airline industry has been a failure. Until this year’s financial meltdown, airline re-regulation seemed implausible. But now that the government is taking huge stakes in the financial industry, is it inconceivable that the government might take an ownership position in failing airlines? What of the calls for a passenger’s “bill of rights,” which would mandate minimum operational standards for everything from timeliness to in-flight service? And here’s a scary thought: Airlines continue to outsource aircraft maintenance to third-party contractors around the world and government regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration have neither the money nor the manpower to conduct proper inspections and maintain effective oversight.
Modernizing Air-Traffic Control
The nation’s air-traffic control system relies on antiquated radar. It’s one of the reasons that delays skyrocketed in recent years as airlines overwhelmed the system with new flights. This fall’s double-digit flight cutbacks have temporarily relieved the stress, but the nation badly needs a new A.T.C. system. A so-called NextGen product that uses satellite-based technology has been stalled in Congress and will take up to 20 years to implement once it passes. The new president will have to figure out how to execute intermediate improvements so that air-traffic control won’t buckle when the economy improves and airlines add flights again.
And there’s this: The Federal Aviation Administration and air-traffic controllers remain at war after the Bush Administration unilaterally imposed new contract terms and work rules. Controllers retaliated by retiring in record numbers. The workforce needs to be rebuilt fast — no easy task when it can take two presidential election cycles to bring a new controller fully up to speed.
Will the Skies Stay Open?
The big rush to deregulate the skies between the United States and Europe hasn’t gone as the airlines or pundits expected. There’s been much less new service launched; much of what did start in March has already been dropped or changed. Ditto for more liberal aviation agreements between the United States and Asia-Pacific nations. What’s all this got to do with a new president? Believe it or not, aviation agreements are treaties between nations and presidents must literally sign off on them. The next president will be under pressure to revisit the European agreement — large Europe-based carriers may want the right to make big investments in U.S. airlines — and forge new deals to revive the flagging fortunes of transoceanic service.
Defending the Dollar
A strong-dollar policy has been a staple of all post-war presidents. Yet the Bush Administration has been more talk than action and the greenback hit appalling lows this year against the euro, British pound, the Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian dollars, and many other currencies. Oddly, however, this fall’s financial meltdown has strengthened the dollar or weakened other currencies — or a combination of both. With head-turning speed, the dollar has rebounded and hit a five-year high against the British pound and a two-year high against the euro. The Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian dollars have withered and given back years of gains against the greenback in just a few weeks.
The next president must make a decision: Buck up the buck, which would make it cheaper for us to travel on business overseas. Or let it fall again, which would encourage exports and inbound tourism, but increase the cost of international travel for U.S. fliers and drive up the price of oil for everyone.
The Fine Print . . .
If Barack Obama is elected, insiders think Representative James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, could be named secretary of transportation. John McCain’s choice might be Governor Tim Pawlenty, who won praise for his leadership after the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. It’s just coincidence that both men are from Minnesota.