What’s Wrong with the Airlines (Fortune Classics, 1946)
Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our archive. Who hasn’t kicked off a summer trip by shuffling through an airport to catch a cramped, delayed flight?Apparently, air travel conditions in 1946 were gruesome too. The airline industry was struggling to keep up with booming demand, and had just discovered the benefits of overbooking. And a plane seat was, “as perishable a commodity as a fried egg or a dry martini.” Indeed.
The passenger is unhappy. Before he is happy again the airlines must pass their first great test of management.
In the sky there are always moments of beauty and wonder such as surface travelers cannot know. Eastbound from Memphis, a night-going passenger floats far above a rolling plain of cloud that fills the sky to the horizons like a rumpled carpet of cotton.
As the sun rises, a great red stain spreads swiftly along the cotton carpet, as if the night had been murdered there. Then the sun bulges swiftly up over the edge of the rumpled cotton, the red stain turns to gold, and it is morning.
Westbound out of Chicago, flying in a rain like silver straws, the plane struggles through whipping mists in a melodrama of blue lightning flashes that reveal the great Duralumin wings trembling all the way out to the comforting regular flicker of the wing tips’ lights. The storm passes and the plane slips softly on through the night, the storm only a memory in the black velvet distance where the red forks of lightning dig viciously again and again into the empty faraway Nebraska plains…
This beauty and wonder are about the only compensations for airline travel in 1946. To travel by plane, a passenger must now sacrifice his comfort, his sleep, and often his baggage. He must endure inconveniences that rise to the level of punishment. And sometimes he finds he could have got there faster by train.
For the airlines of the nation are in trouble. Boom business has jammed air facilities from the reservation telephones on through the whole system and into the air. The major airports are getting close to the absolute maximum of traffic that can be handled safely. Whenever the weather gets bad, the specter of mid-air collisions above the inadequate airports haunts the entire industry. The coming winter is dreaded.
Thus indictment of 1946 air travel falls naturally into two counts: First, that it is frequently gruelingly uncomfortable, inconvenient to the point of exasperation, and on short hauls is only dubiously faster as a means of travel. Second, that big-city airport congestion is making air travel hazardous.
In a sense the current airline crisis is a trial of management. The airlines are now big business. They became big business at a time when some of their ablest men were off building the great war records of ATC and NATS or otherwise serving the armed forces. What they face now has little glamour in it. Management confronts a challenge to organizing and business ability. Because of the airlines’ new importance in national communications, the degree to which these managements succeed or fail is a matter of proper public concern.
The cause of the trouble is simple enough: boom business. The boom is enormous by any comparisons, and it came with unexpected suddenness and intensity. This boom came to a business that was handicapped by almost completely obsolete ground facilities and was deeply understaffed. The dimensions of the boom are most easily found in a few fundamental figures.
•In 1941 the airlines flew 1.5 billion passenger-miles; in 1945 they flew 3.5 billion passenger-miles. In May this year United Air Lines flew almost twice as many passenger-miles as it did in the record-breaking May of 1945; other airlines showed similar increases, and it is highly probable the new record figure for this year will be around 7 billion passenger-miles.
•In 1941 the airlines had 359 planes, with 6,200 seats. During the war they were cut down to 166 planes, and they flew most of last year with about 350 planes.
• By the end of next year the airlines’ total fleet, including overseas equipment, is expected to be three and one-half times as big as the prewar fleet, with, eight times the seating capacity. Under this estimate there will be 1,200 aircraft, with 49,000 seats, capable of flying 10 billion passenger-miles annually in scheduled operations. From 1.5 billion to 10 billion represents more than a sixfold increase. In six years, this would be an event in any business; to the airlines it is something like a disaster.
•For many months the airlines have been adding schedules and adding flight after flight to those new schedules, and turning away as many as three passengers for every one they have carried. Before the war the airlines regarded 65 percent as a satisfactory load factor. Now the load factor is 85 per cent, with many flights 100 per cent loaded.
•In the old days when planes arrived and departed somewhere near schedules, the airlines carried one-seventh of the class A (Pullman) passengers; by 1948 they hope to carry half.
Few airline executives foresaw the extent of the present boom; none came near guessing correctly the depth of the packed-down public demand for air travel. Rates have been reduced 10 per cent since 1941, making it cheaper in many cases to travel by air than by Pullman-bringing in ever greater hordes of travel-bargain customers.
The endurance contest
This vast boom in air travel hit the airlines before they had time to recover from the shocks of war, when half of their planes and many of their top executives had been drafted for the struggle. Almost every airline could claim one general or at least a brace of colonels. And the boom hit before the generals and the colonels could take off their uniforms.
The first effect of the boom was to diminish the old-time service standards, astonishingly well maintained through the war itself, toward the vanishing point. Indeed the anecdotes about air-travel hardships have become so commonplace that a person who flew from New York to St. Louis without incident gets more attention than the airline bore with lugubrious tales of his latest mishaps. Many people do, of course, ride the airlines without undue pain or irritation. Moreover, there are airlines and airlines; some are doing a much better job than others. But the following case history is neither better nor worse than the experience of thousands of passengers:
Passenger Smith had a reservation and a ticket on a DC-4 leaving La Guardia airport in New York at 6:00 P.M. At 5:45 P.M., with fifty-six other passengers, he was waiting at Gate 4. An attendant came out of the plane, stopped the baggage loading, told the passengers the plane would be delayed forty-five minutes—no reason given. After about half an hour a plane resembling Passenger Smith’s was hauled up to Gate 3, next door; Smith thought the announcer roared, “Flight 19 is now loading at Gate 3.” Passenger Smith and several others drifted to Gate 3. After some wait the chain was let down and the crowd started aboard. The ticket checker said that this plane was going to Boston, not Chicago; Smith’s flight was still to leave at Gate 4. But back at Gate 4 there was no plane yet. Breaking into the telephone conversation of a clerk, Smith learned that Flight 19 had left five minutes before. Angry, he talked to the head of the office, who said: “We called the plane and it was your responsibility to be there.” He admitted that the forty-five-minute announcement had been untrue, but explained that with the big planes, the airline just could not check to see if all passengers were aboard. He got Passenger Smith a seat on a plane leaving at 10:00 P.M. Three hours to kill. At 9:45 P.M., grimly determined, he lined up again at Gate 4 with the usual crowd. An attendant came out of the plane, approached the crowd and said: “There will be a forty-five-minute delay.” Passenger Smith settled down with his murder mystery, afraid to leave for a drink, fearing they would sneak the plane away from him again.
When Passenger Smith had missed the first’ plane, he had found there were three other planes leaving for Chicago before the 10:00 P.M. flight, but the clerk had told him that this four-motored flight would get him there quicker. Now he sat listening as the other flights left on time. At 10:45 his plane did not appear at the gate, but the attendant did: he said there would be another half-hour delay. No reason given or obtainable. Still Smith waited, and the other passengers waited; they feared to leave the tiny waiting room at the gate for the long walk back to the main airport building. Without a blush or an apology or even a reason, this kept on until 2 :00 A.M., each time a repeated forty-five-minute or half-hour postponement. Smith had now been at the airport for eight hours and fifteen minutes, much of the time standing up, enduring the modern Ordeal-by-Loudspeaker. The flight finally arrived at Chicago at 5:00 A.M.
Standards of service are off in all businesses; 1946 simply is not a year of plush comfort. But, based on prewar standards — and postwar advertising — something more is expected of the airlines. And public disappointment at their present poor performance is the highest tribute the airlines could ask.
The average passenger’s difficulties begin with the telephone and go on through a long series of vexations.
Airline telephones always seem busy. The telephone jam is unbelievably thick; the cost in both dollars and efficiency has been inestimable. United’s telephone bill in nine months went from $12,500 to $32,000. The boards are plugged full, with waiting callers vainly trying to get in through the busy signal — some airline offices average 3,000 busy signals per day. Passengers are unable to reach the airline even to cancel their reservations; in the congestion the airlines must handle from seven to twelve calls for each passenger actually flown! The telephone company has been working closely with the airlines, and with more new equipment in sight, relief is expected by the end of this year.
2. RESERVATIONS AND TICKETS
The waiting list in many places has become a joke, for the simple reason that it is easier for the airline to sell to the “go-show” than to make a dozen calls checking a waiting list. Further, the ordinary passenger calling hopefully about the waiting list is happily unaware that the person with the pleasant voice instead of checking the lists has merely laid down the phone before saying, sorry, nothing has opened up. Or that the courteous questions about initials, home and business telephone numbers may have been asked while the clerk was thumbing a comic book, pencil untouched behind the ear.
Pressure long ago forced the airlines to discard the detailed manifest to be filled out for each flight; this became impossible when the bigger planes required counter clerks to check through fifty passengers per plane in a few minutes. The newer procedures, however, are still overcomplicated. Some airlines have done away with the old envelope full of tickets and stubs, in favor of a small folding booklet to which the baggage stubs are conveniently stapled; the defect is that the booklet is a miniature manifest, in which the clerks must fill in by hand the flight details in little squares. Other lines have small handy tickets but still use the old envelope system, from which tickets are easily lost. Often the wrong end of the ticket is collected, and the stub left with the passenger entitles him to nothing whatever.
In some cities the passenger goes through a long line-up and full examination at the downtown office and then must repeat the procedure at the airport. Things are always going wrong: there is no record of the passenger’s reservation, his passage is cleared only part way through, etc. On a cross-country flight it is not unusual to have something seriously wrong with at least one person’s ticket at every stop. If there is one more ticketed passenger aboard than there are seats, every passenger has to be examined allover again, the, luckless one evicted, and the entire plane’s baggage unloaded and reloaded. Result: a long delay, with not one passenger irritated but all of them.
This reservation snarl is only too often, in fact, the direct fault of the airlines in overselling tickets — a practice denied by shocked executives but freely admitted by counter clerks. When too many seats have been sold for a flight and all the passengers show up, the airlines’ safest procedure is to cancel the flight since legally each oversold passenger may sue the line. However, credit must be given to the airlines for one clean performance record — there is no black market in air tickets.
3. LIMOUSINE SERVICE
This is bad throughout the U.S. — dirty, uncomfortable, and often a factor in the main disease of the airlines: delay due to cumulative petty inefficiencies. The airlines generally protest that they do not want to go into the bus business, and leave it at that. The bus concessionaires argue that they cannot buy new cars, and leave it at that. Most airports are inconveniently distant from downtown districts; the Civil Aeronautics Administration figures that the average to-and-from time is eighty minutes, forty minutes each way. Any poll would probably show that passengers blamed the airlines for the limousine service, and since only a few major cities have close-in airports, the limousine ride as a part of air travel is a permanent fixture at least until the helicopter gets out of the newsreel stage.
If the passenger is not an air-travel veteran he may find himself tipping baggage porters repeatedly — at the downtown ticket office, at the airport, and thus on to destination. A porter who merely lifts baggage on and off the counter scales, turning with outstretched hand to say, “Hope-you-have-a-pleasant-trip-thank- YOU-sir,” can count on a minimum of 25 cents per passenger. With a fifty-passenger plane leaving every hour, the porter does very well indeed.
But this minor annoyance would be unimportant if the passenger were sure of his luggage. The case of the man whose briefcase, containing $50,000 worth of building plans, disappeared from a plane between Reno and San Francisco and turned up days later in St. Petersburg, Florida, is unique only in that the briefcase was recovered. Some airline men believe that there is a great deal of baggage endlessly sailing the skies like the Flying Dutchman, transferred from plane to plane and city to city forever.
While the efficiency of pilots and of maintenance crews has somehow been maintained at prewar standards, service en route has fallen off badly. The average career of a stewardess used to be thirteen months, which is brief enough for developing efficiency. But until recently to become a stewardess was almost the same thing as to enter a marriage bureau; often the girls left for the altar long before they became efficient at their jobs. The problem of feeding some fifty passengers in the big four-engined planes is much more complex than feeding the twenty-one on DC-3’s. The faster new flights permit only the sketchiest of services, at super-cafeteria speed. The passengers tend to clog the aisles as they head for their separate rest rooms. The food is not very good and often there isn’t enough to go around. Airline coffee, at best, is merely warm. And where a few dollar-greedy lines converted their C-54’s to carry as many as sixty seats, the seats themselves are boys’ size — three abreast with a narrow aisle and then two abreast. The plight of the man in the middle seat, with no armrests, beggars description.
Even if both the cities and the airlines had fully foreseen the vast mushrooming of air travel, they could not have done anything substantial to improve airports. First the war and then the transition period have blocked building programs. Men and materials have been unavailable.
Just to do business — any kind of business, of the simplest sort — has been painfully, exasperatingly difficult in the past year of transition. The airlines shared this difficulty with all other businesses: the inability to get anything done in the face of strikes, shortages, inefficiency, and above all the infectious national attitude, at every level, of the-hell-with-it.
The half-dozen largest city airports handle millions of people a year. La Guardia airport with 2,100,000 people, Washington with 757,000, Chicago with 1,300,000, and Los Angeles’ Lockheed Air Terminal with 760,000 give clear indication of the size of the new air traffic. By standards of the huge railroad terminals, such as New York’s Grand Central, which handles 65 million people a year, a million passengers is not so much. But a million passengers jamming through one small room, such as Chicago’s filthy little air terminal, instantly creates a problem solvable only by a fresh start in new surroundings, by new design on functional lines.
Chicago is the worst; its airport is a slum. Chewing gum, orange peel, papers, and cigar butts strew the floor around the stacks of baggage. Porters can’t keep the floor clean if people are standing on it day and night. At almost all hours every telephone booth is filled, with people lined up outside; the dingy airport cafe is filled, with standees. To rest the thousands there are exactly twenty-eight broken-down leather seats. One must line up even for the rest rooms. The weary travelers sit or even lie on the floor. The drooping grandmothers, the crying babies, the continuous, raucous, unintelligible squawk of the loudspeaker, the constant push and jostle of new arrivals and new baggage tangling inextricably with their predecessors, make bus terminals look like luxury. In such an atmosphere the beat-up traveler, interminably waiting for some unexplained reason, has no recourse but to ponder bitterly on the brilliant advertisement that lured him to “TRAVEL WITH THE EASY SWIFTNESS OF HOMEWARD-WINGING BIRDS.”
To say that the airports at San Francisco or Los Angeles are less squalid than Chicago is faint praise, for the difference is so slight that anyone passing hastily through would notice no real improvement. Almost all U.S. airports are utterly barren of things to do. The dirty little lunch counters are always choked with permanent sitters staring at their indigestible food; even a good cup of coffee is a thing unknown. The traveler consigned to hours of tedious waiting can only clear a spot on the floor and sit on his baggage and, while oversmoking, drearily contemplate his sins.
Most major airports were built to handle a few hundred passengers a day. The facilities are so completely jammed that every possible service suffers: the loading and unloading of passengers, of baggage, of mail and cargo; the lounges and rest rooms, the cleaning services, the public-address and intercommunication systems, the information service, the porter and ticket-counter service.
Cities have been afraid to look ahead in building airports; it seems that until deep in the war years people were acting as if the airplane were not here to stay. Los Angeles is a clear example. Western Air Express built a terminal in suburban Alhambra in 1929; the airport was regarded as perfect. In two years it was definitely inadequate, and Western joined other airlines at Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale. Grand Central was soon outmoded, and in the late thirties the airlines began moving individually to join United at the Lockheed terminal in Burbank. This was hailed as the final move. With Burbank long since obsolete, the airlines are now preparing to move, for the fourth time in seventeen years, to an old Army field, now being refurbished, in the southwest corner of Los Angeles.
The airfields themselves are inadequate. The CAA reported almost a year ago: “Airports at 174 of the 286 designated air-carrier stops are deficient in length of runways, clearness of approaches, and other features important to efficiency and safety.” Another way to put the problem: such short-runway airports as Detroit and Phoenix cannot get DC-4 service.
No major airport terminal buildings are functional in design, except National Airport in Washington — and architects can make out a good case against that. It can be argued of course that the airlines are not responsible for terminal buildings. Or it can he argued that the airlines made a basic error in accepting municipal subsidies instead of building and operating their own terminals like the railroads. What is certainly clear is that the airlines, by their overcompetitive attitude in local situations, have often lost sight of the heart of the problem: the welfare of air travelers. For one thing, this has forced many costly and inefficient duplications of facilities.
The airlines’ attitude of competitive jealousy has worked particularly to the disadvantage of the air-traveling public. In effect, each line has – unsuccessfully — tried to install comforts for its own passengers, meanwhile letting the main burden of handling all passengers fall on the municipally managed, politics-ridden airports. Any amateur efficiency expert could suggest many possible emergency improvements at almost any U.S. airport — for example, cheap marquees to keep rain off the passengers on the long walks to the loading gates; simple wooden barriers in the waiting rooms to keep the lines orderly; temporary shelving to keep baggage off the floor; wooden benches just for people to sit on; airport coffee counters to separate the eaters from the coffee drinkers; emergency information booths to keep information seekers out of the ticket lines. There are scores of such improvements obvious to any eye. The airlines have exerted very little pressure to get this sort of ugly, temporary, but urgent building done. What is needed is emergency action and temporary improvements — in short, a mere recognition of the crisis. This recognition has only begun to dawn in the last few months. It will be two years at the very earliest before the U.S. has the big new airports and functional air-terminal buildings it needs so urgently.
Airports are crowded outside, too; planes line the aprons as thickly as people clog the terminals. And beyond the airports even the skies are crowded.
This congestion is serious because it involves safety, a category quite separate from the mere discomforts and delays of air travel. The fact is that several major airports are now deep into what the CAA calls “the twilight zone” of congestion. Many months ago the CAA warned “that when traffic reaches fifty to sixty movements an hour in a given sector, control with present apparatus can be continued only at a reduced standard of efficiency, and beyond this ‘twilight zone’ present facilities will not permit any traffic control.” But over most of the U.S. danger comes to the airlines specifically only in bad weather. Heavy traffic in good weather is not dangerous — it merely requires great skill in traffic management. Storms and fog mean dollar losses, delays, and danger.
In good weather at La Guardia in New York some 420 scheduled airline operations are handled every day; as many as 300 other flights — Army, Navy, unscheduled, cargo, and private — may also take off or land. Traffic sometimes reaches such peaks as fifty-three planes per hour.
When the fog or storms come the aerial rat race begins. Planes must approach the fields on instruments — landings on standard procedure then require from six to twenty minutes per plane. This automatically means a sharp reduction in an airport’s traffic capacity. The airlines’ busy schedule is immediately wrecked; planes and passengers clog the fogbound terminal on the ground; other planes and passengers clog the skies for hundreds of miles in all directions, backing up at distant airports. Only a few of the scores of approaching planes can be landed every hour; CAA’s Air Traffic Control obviously must “stop” the planes in the soup. The result is what’s known as “stacking.”
This is what scares the daylights out of passengers, and what makes old men of young pilots — circling for hours in the grayness near an airport. At La Guardia, ATC has six regular stacking points about Manhattan: Freehold, Metuchen, and Bendix in New Jersey; Port Chester, Flatbush, and Ambrose in New York. The planes are stacked in layers 1,000 feet apart vertically, usually from 2,500 feet up to about 8,500 feet. They do not circle; actually the planes fly tight and narrowly prescribed courses at their separate levels, graduating downward one layer at a time. The ATC clears planes from the bottoms of the stacks, passing them to control by the tower, which lands them. The stacked pilots go through a minor purgatory of tension, flying two minutes out, by the second hands of their watches, turning exactly, flying back to the marker, turning again, over and over. Two hours of this is not unusual; the record is held by a plane that circled Washington airport this spring for five hours.
Under standard procedure the controllers must keep the planes widely separated in landing; and if an understandably nervous pilot misses his landing in the murk there must be a spot open for him at the botton of the stack beyond. Outside the field, approaching to enter at the tops of the six stacks in the ‘New York area, are planes from Boston and Cleveland and Norfolk and Paris. In the ten-mile-wide strips of sky that are the U.S. airways, 220-mile-an-hour planes are overtaking 180-mile-an-hour planes, and are being overtaken by 280-mile-an-hour planes. Finally the tension in La Guardia’s overworked control center reaches the point of physical confusion; the senior controller throws up his hands and all New York-bound flights may be canceled for a thousand miles in all directions except the ocean.
The danger — the biggest remaining unbeaten danger in air travel — lies here, in the stacks, in bad weather. In terms of safety the record is still clear, as this goes to press, but the question mark is there. It takes little imagination to picture the dangers when someone makes an error-or, say, when a plane high in a stack, perhaps fifteenth in landing order, suddenly develops engine trouble and must be landed immediately. The skill, and nerve of the pilots and the traffic controllers are superb. But’ they themselves are the first to stress how much of it is blind luck. Sample of luck:
A pilot, bringing a ship into a major airport recently, checked with traffic control, reported his position at a range station, flying at 7,000 feet. Control told him: “Cleared to descend to 1,500 feet.” He rogered, descended, checked in again at 1,500 feet. This time ATC ordered: “Descend to 5,000 feet.” The hair rising on his neck, the pilot said he was already at 1,500 and why did they want him to hold at 5,000. ATC told him: “Other aircraft at 4,000 feet.” He had somehow descended safely through other traffic in the fog.
One pilot who visited the La Guardia traffic-control center on a recent soupy day was so appalled that he told a company official: “For God’s sake don’t let any other pilots see what’s going on in there or you’ll never get a plane off the ground.”
One airline executive said: “Of course there’ll be midair collisions one of these days.”
A chief pilot: “It gets down to figuring your chances.”
One air-transport authority: “Next winter will be tougher than last winter.”
Congestion is obviously not only unsafe but costly. A plane seat is as perishable a commodity as a fried egg or a dry martini; a canceled flight is red ink on the books.
What congestion costs has been carefully studied in one instance, the day of May 17 at La Guardia airport. May 17 was the Black Friday of 1946 for the airlines. Manhattan weather was bad, but flyable on instruments. Air Traffic Control did not cancel any flights to or from La Guardia since the weather was good outside of New York, and all points were freely dispatching New York flights. Results on one airline: fifteen southbound flights and thirteen northbound flights were delayed on the ground and in the air for a total of fifty-six hours and forty minutes; the jam further made necessary two nonscheduled stops at Philadelphia and one at Newark. Another airline, in the six hours between 11:15 A.M. and 5:10 P.M., had twenty-six delays, with a total loss of fifty-nine hours and eleven minutes. Between New York and Boston eighteen trips were canceled; between New York and Washington five were canceled. The line’s revenue loss was $6,000; and 1,451 of its passengers were inconvenienced.
Safety is the most serious of the airlines’ problems. But not until May of this year did the airlines’ trade group, the Air Transport Association, agree on a program of air navigation and traffic control to present to the CAA. Their program recommended, among other things, installations in the busiest airports to add both speed and safety to landings in instrument weather: instrument-landing systems (I.L.S.), locater stations near airports, high-intensity approach and runway lights.
The CAA is already installing instrument-landing systems at fifty airports, and now has appropriations to cover the installation of another thirty-one I.L.S. by July, 1947. The I.L.S. uses a combination of radio aids that in effect give the pilot his location in relation to the runway so closely that he is able to bring in his plane on instruments safely in thick weather. The great advantage of I.L.S. is that it speeds up the ability to land under instrument conditions, permitting landings in weather now considered unflyable and cutting the landing time down to four minutes or less. This obviously increases the bad-weather capacity of such an airport as La Guardia.
There is a sizable controversy over what constitutes the best I.L.S. The CAA version of I.L.S. is composed of a glide path, localizer, and fan markers. The A.T.A. insists that this system is incomplete without the further installation of locater stations.
Unless these additions are made, argues A.T.A., planes cannot be brought down more swiftly. The argument is technical, but in sum A.T.A. agrees that CAA’s I.L.S. system is safe enough but not fast enough.
Work is slowly proceeding on other air-navigation aids. At Chicago, high-intensity runway and approach lights will be installed by next winter as an experiment. On the West Coast, the Navy is continuing experiments on the R.A.F.’s F.LD.O. (Fog Investigation Dispersal Operation), a method of burning fog away around airports. Problem: cost. During the war the R.A.F. simply set fire to gasoline in pipes laid around an airport; landing was “like walking into a room,” the pilots said. And to increase the amount of off-airways flying, and thus relieve congestion on the airways, CAA plans to install nine low-frequency, high-power, omnidirectional ranges next year. On long flights these would give the economy of great-circle routes to the airlines, plus the comfort of flying around bad weather. To relieve the dangerous New York-Washington congestion, CAA and the airlines now plan to use three “tracks” in the sky instead of one, and a bypass system for flights such as Boston-Washington direct and New York-Norfolk direct.
But the public still asks: what about radar? Here is an area of peculiar vagueness. Radar was sold to the public, perhaps oversold, as the great scientific achievement that brought hundreds of Army and Navy pilots — home safely through instrument weather. Why not, therefore, use it on the airlines?
The industry says that all-weather flying, involving use of radar is five years off. Why?
In general the airlines argue that military radar is still full of bugs, that it is not yet adaptable to commercial use. The airlines, it seems, are holding out for an all-purpose radar system, instead of accepting the considerable, though partial, benefits of radar in its present form.
The CAA Journal said in its June 15 issue: “Even during the war there were those who called for the abandonment of the CAA’s V.H.F. [very high frequency] system and immediate adoption of the radar system for civil use. However the flying industry and the flying public are the bosses, indirectly, of the CAA … Airline pilots … and the airlines … are agreed that radar should not be adopted without further study of its practicability and usefulness for air transportation.”
CAA has experimentally equipped the Indianapolis control tower with radar, and the airlines have made some progress in radar experimentation. T.W.A. is training pilots in the ground-control approach system, in which ground radar operators locate and then “talk in” fogbound planes. American Airlines has its Flagship Alpha, a flying radar laboratory that has been making tests since March 1.
The studies thus far have shown that radar has almost miraculous possibilities. Some of its uses: for prevention of collisions with mountains; for navigation en route, particularly at night in locating the plane much more exactly than is now possible; for low approaches on instruments; for weather surveillance, and the avoiding of thunderstorms; for precise altitude determination; for detecting the presence, distance, and direction of other aircraft; and for an indication of the airplane’s attitude — whether it is climbing, descending, or turning.
There are still bugs in many of radar’s applications to these uses. For example: when there are many buildings ahead, the “echoes” from them on the radarscope are lost in a clutter of impressions-in effect the pilot can avoid collision with buildings only if he knows he is near them and then carefully adjusts the antenna and observes the scope. Another example: in present radar sets the pilot cannot read the scope in bright daylight.
But despite such defects, pilots have made winding flights through the Catskill Mountains at an altitude 500 feet below the peaks by radar alone; pilots who have never seen radar beacons have been able to make such low approaches in unfamiliar planes by radar alone that landings could be made below 600-foot ceilings; and radar-equipped aircraft can fly experimentally by beacons with such accuracy that a pilot “under the hood” and unable to see from the windows is able to call out at any time his exact position over the ground. Such advantages are so great that they will inevitably force all commercial planes into the use of radar; the cost to the airlines will be several million dollars.
In a further effort to do something about safety, the A.T.A. has recently voted a $300,000 appropriation for air-navigation and traffic-control research. But neither this sum nor the radar experimentation has anything to do with air travel this winter. When the weather gets bad the airlines will have only their old safety formula to rely on: the cancellation of flights. As they put it wryly, air travel in bad weather is perfectly safe if all planes are grounded. Nothing cancels profits so quickly nor destroys good will so swiftly as canceled flights. Yet the airlines well know that while one major mid-air collision may be passed over, two will surely shake the whole structure with congressional investigations.
No one can accuse the airlines of profiting from the present confusion. Most lines were deep in the red in the first quarter of the year, and although the down trend has been reversed in some cases, the full-year figures will make a very poor showing alongside those of 1945, when American had a net profit of $4,340,000, United $4,204,000, and Eastern $2,126,000. So far the domestic-airline boom is not even profitless prosperity; it’s been strictly a losing proposition. Even conservative United lost money in the first three months.
How much of the boom traffic can be translated into permanently profitable operations depends largely on airline management. The current predicament is the first major business challenge, pure management challenge, they have had to meet. Before the war airlines were not big business, but big- little business. In 1939, American, the biggest of all, employed 2,795 people, possessed total assets of $5,433,000, took in $15 million, and showed an operating profit of $3,800,000. By the end of last year American’s total assets were up to $30,400,000, its gross for the year was $47,400,000, and its operating profit $8,200,000. Its employees today total about 13,000. That is big business.
Managements that have been able to organize and direct the growth of enterprises on the order of the big airlines are obviously not incompetent. The question that needs to be asked is: how good are the airline operators, not as operators but as businessmen? Most airline executives are youngish, keen, aggressive, tough. They are rightly proud of their pioneering achievement; some find it hard to accept the unromantic fact that their problems are growing more and more to resemble those of the railroad man and the steamship operator. With few exceptions the airline executives are equipment-minded. Many were flyers themselves and know infinitely more about planes than about organization. Some have been so out of touch with traffic that when they actually encounter their own service as passengers they are appalled. But their future depends on the cantankerous, demanding passenger, not on the beautiful planes they love so much.
Too few of the airline executives seem aware of the fact that the present emergency is critical, that the size and success of their response to this challenge will determine their own individual fates. That airline stocks were high was as much a stock market belief that air travel is here to stay as a vote of confidence in the management job currently being done.
Consider personnel policies.
No matter what the executives think, the airline employee in 1946 is not a satisfied employee. His dissatisfaction is very simple: money. Airline employees as a group are not well paid; this holds true all the way up to vice presidents. Highly responsible officials in many airlines often make no more than $300 a month. Recent figures are unavailable, but in 1944 the average pilot made only $660 a month; the co-pilot only $234; stewardesses only $139; office workers only $178. These salaries are very little improved even now — for example, pilot pay on. DC-3’s has not been changed since 1938. The low pay began in the old days when flying was so glamorous that men worked for nothing just to be near airplanes.
Bigger — but better?
It is hard for the pioneers to believe that many of those lost in the anonymity of 10,000 employees regard airlines as no more glamorous than bus lines. (A widely told airlines story has it that recently an airline official, sitting in the rear of a plane, noticed that the stewardess was carefully peering under all the seats and in the hat shelves. Curious, he asked: “What are you looking for?” She answered gravely: “For some of the glamour I was told I’d find on airplanes.”)
One reason the passengers get pushed around is that so many airline employees have not yet been trained properly, for lack of time. Recently an office clerk was made a stewardess in the morning, and took her first airplane flight that afternoon.
This year many employees have literally been yanked into jobs, and trained on the job under acute pressure. This fact, contrasted with the once-superb employee-training program, accounts for many of the service defects today.
The management habits of the old days show up conspicuously both in the underestimation of the travel market and in the lack of solutions offered for unscrambling the resulting, confusion. Good market research and analysis of the scale and precision common in big business are virtually unknown. In the nontechnical and nonoperating phases, the airline executive relies heavily on the sense of feel, which served him so well in the big-little-business days.
In the equipment-buying spree that has committed the airlines to $350 million worth of new and converted planes, the question of how all the planes are to be got through the bottleneck of the airports certainly was not given much consideration. Even now some airline executives are still maintaining that the answer to their difficulties is, more and bigger planes. Yet bigger planes, carrying more passengers faster, can only compound the confusion: the extra passengers taken from one crowded airport must be landed at another crowded airport. The airlines are merely attempting to ram more passengers through the little gates of the obsolete airports. And the managements who are adding the big new planes are not yet planning to retire any of the old ones — the absolute number is sure to increase.
This faith in the bigger and better has shown up in another area: additional routes. It can be well argued that it was up to CAB, not the airlines, to declare a moratorium on new domestic route allocations, inasmuch as the franchises are granted by the board. This summer there were applications pending for 750,000 miles of additional routes. And new routes, before the problems of the old were digested, have contributed confusion.
Delta Air Lines, for instance, was struggling to give good service on its 1,900-mile system when it suddenly received the Chicago-Miami route of 1,000 miles more. Inevitably the experience level was spread very thin to cover the additional mileage — to say nothing of equipment and the increased jamming of established ground facilities. Yet Delta is not to be blamed; in the bitter struggle for routes no airline can sit idly by and let great areas of potential revenue be sewed up by competitors. T.W.A. and American, of course, took on tremendous overseas responsibilities. Colonial, a smallish line, has quadrupled its route mileage with extensions to Canada and Bermuda.
No efforts to clean up the passengers’ complaints have yet been conspicuously successful. As a matter fact, to illustrate the airline management attitude, the one measure on which they are pretty generally agreed in their crisis is, of all things, to penalize the “no-show” passenger by charging him a certain percentage of his fare. This ignores the fact that it is their general inability to handle boom traffic that has forced passengers to make duplicate reservations.
President W. A. Patterson of United, one of the few businessmen operators, at least has recognized the gravity of the situation. He wrote a memorandum last May detailing the aspects of the problem as it faced United Air Lines — the enormous and frankly unexpected growth in business, the resulting decline from prewar standards of service. The memo, which could apply even more powerfully to some other airlines whose standards are higher in their advertising than in their service, asked for immediate action. He forthwith appointed an emergency committee, consisting of his top four Vice Presidents, and ordered it to drop all other duties and to visit all United airports. They were to take on-the-spot action to remedy every quickly remediable deficiency. They had authority to scrap schedules, hire and fire, promote and demote, do anything that would get quick action.
The group, labeled by employees the “Atomic Committee,” proceeded from town to town for three full weeks. At each stop the entire operations, traffic, and reservations staff was called in for long, full, frank beef sessions, at which all suggestions for immediate and long-term improvements were seriously studied on the spot. This procedure got some results. The immediate expenditure of $1,500,000 was authorized in the field. But it is characteristic of all airline thinking that when the U.A.L .local office managers were given “blanket authority” to spend up to $200 without head-office permission during the emergency, this was hailed as daring and revolutionary.
Several airlines are planning to experiment with no-reservation planes, notably United on the Seattle-Portland route, American between New York and Boston, and T.W.A. between Pittsburgh and New York. A passenger wishing to fly either way would merely go to the airport at the scheduled time; the line would take his money and put him on a plane. This would reduce flying to the level of taking a streetcar-you just show up on the corner and put your money in the box and find a seat. The “go-show” has pointed the way. And many airline men believe that the passenger-of-the-future is the go-show. He is already one of the most important factors in the business; with no-shows running about 8 percent (prewar about 11/2 percent), the go-show may mean the difference between profit and loss.
The go-show passenger of the future would at once solve the telephone and reservation problems; he would make no telephone calls and have no reservations. He would simply be cash-on-the-line at the airport, right where the lines want him.
The greatest asset of the U.S. airlines is the American faith in the air. It is not a wasting asset, for it is inconceivable that the American will ever return to the earth, no matter how badly the airlines are managed. For every disgruntled passenger who has returned to the Pullmans; two or three have deserted the trains. It will be a great shame upon the airline operators, however, if they fail to meet the challenge that faith in the air has created. If part of the trouble lies with the CAA, it is up to the airlines to build bonfires under CAA. If part of the trouble lies with municipalities, let the airlines put pressure on the municipalities. Fairly or unfairly, the flying public holds the airlines responsible. Patient and long-suffering today, the passenger is also the U.S. public, and if he gets pushed around too much, he invariably fights back. And he may fight back not by staying off the airlines, but by giving political support to the men who can best capitalize upon his gnawing frustration. In short, the best way for the airlines to keep out of political hot water is to run their business better.