Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Not Flying High

Warning. This rant has been building for a while so it is extra long. I may have mentioned some of this before, but it has come to a head once again, and I wanted to put my thoughts in one post. It's about why I now hate the commercial flying experience and my interpretation of the cause of the airline industry tanking. If you have other opinions or like mine, please comment. I'd like to know if I'm alone on this.

The airline industry has had a lot of press like this this month with airlines going under, worst service measures in recent history, grounding flights for inspection, grounding flights for maintenance, and record low passenger counts. I've been waiting for this for, oh, lets call it 7 years and 7 months. Because all this stuff that's showing problems now? THIS is what we should have been funding since 9/11 if we wanted to be safer when traveling: maintenance, inspection, upgrades to planes and airports and air traffic control, staff training. Not those placebo TSA screenings which waste time, money, productivity, and do NOTHING but make me less safe.

And the media is expressing confusion as to why people aren't as keen to fly anymore? I wanted to title this post, "Well, Duh!" Where have they been living? Apparently they haven't flown anywhere on a commercial jet in the last couple years. Because with all the restrictions in carry ons and extra processing time of everything we pack, flying is just no longer convenient for anything but a major cross country trip. Short trips like hops up the coast aren't worth the hassle and heaven forbid you actually try to courier items. After all the time and aggravation of both sorting all my stuff into extra piles for inspection, deciding what I can't take for a short trip if I don't want to check the bag, deciding what to check vs. carry for a long trip, what I can live without, disembowelling my first aid kit!!! and repacking everything in an stupid little bag and having to buy water after security for $3, then standing through excruciating lines that can total 90 minutes for one trip... it's easier, faster, less hassle, and cheaper just to drive any trip that's 6 hours or less. And the 8 hour trips are tempting too.

These half assed, completely senseless, "protective" measures do not make me safer, even a little, especially putting all my liquids in a baggie and forgoing water. No water makes this otter and other people extra cranky. I do not want to be standing in line or be crammed in a can with cranky, dehydrated people. Being dehydrated on a plane makes people more susceptible to colds because the protective mucous layer that flushes germs away dries out. What if I don't enough space in the baggie for hand sanitizer because I need to take my contacts? What about all those poor people with actual medicine they need to take?

Does anyone making these insane rules have any idea how much liquid I need to travel with to avoid iterruption of my life? It fits in more than one baggie, and I really do need it. If I have something like mascara tossed out, I will need to buy more in an unfamiliar town which takes extra time and money. Mascara tubes are designed to not let stuff out. I defy ANYONE to cause a real threat with something in a mascara tube. At best, you get a small lamp that wouldn't hold a candle to a lighter, literally. If I have my eye drops tossed out, I could get an eye infection. If I have to throw out two $20 toiletries, that's a tank of gas I could have bought and an hour of shopping. If I spend 30-90 minutes repacking all my stuff into smaller containers, and so do half of all other air travellers, that's literally MILLIONS of person-hours UTTERLY WASTED every damn day. Either that, or we're turning millions of people into smugglers. Lotion is the gateway to smuggling.

In engineering, we do a FMEA for our processes - Failure Mode Effects Analysis. Every process step gets rated for three things - Severity of failure (You will die=10, you can't notice=1), Frequency of Occurence of failure (1 of 2 = 10, ppb = 1), and Detection of failure (can't detect, = 1, will always detect = 1). Anything with a S*O*D >= 150 needs action, and anything with a severity of 9 or 10 needs to be further assessed. The airplane plunging to the ground is clearly a 10. Detection based on inspection is pretty much always an 8 (meaning its only going to catch gross errors), so we're a little high at RPN=80. But then there's occurrence. The VAST majority of the millions of people flying every day just want to get where they are going. While everyone *could* be a threat, realistically, the occurence is a 1, or at most a 2. Because we have to factor in not only intent to harm, but knowledge of how to do so, planning, etc... For someone who is really, really determined, they'll find a way. But someone who is educated and connected enough to pack something harmful and then place it where it will do damage, and actually want to do this is very, very rare. Low ppm range, certainly.

So that leaves our RPN at pretty much 160. So we have to take some action, and review things, but it's not the worst offender. Therefore, the goal of the TSA should be to prevent opportunistic crimes.

Left as an exercise for the reader: Try to calculate the RPN (or just the probability) for failed landing gear, catching a cold on the plane that leads to pneumonia, crashing your car on a 1 hour drive to the airport, losing your luggage (1 in 300 bags goes astray), insufficient inspection of electrical systems, crashing into another plane at or near landing. Pretty much all of these things are way more likely to happen to you and cause you grief than some dumbass blowing you out of the sky, even with absolutely no screening in place. On the whole, as I said, people just want to get to where they're going. Preferably, with all the stuff they need, not stripped naked and hung out to dry.

I think we should keep the x-ray screening of luggage for anything that's carried on and metal detectors of people, and maybe dogs sniffing the checked baggage. But that's mostly to provide a barrier that means someone doesn't accidentally carry explosives on the plane (some everyday things are not safe, you'd be surprised), or a fifth of Jack and a 45. Or that package for the stranger. Stuff like that. Basically, keep people from doing (probably inadvertantly) stupid stuff, or things that have consequences beyond their intent. Most people can just lock their doors, some need security guards or alarm sytstems, and the bigwigs in government require Secret Service. Airline travel pretty much needs the level of security equivalent to locking doors, and maybe putting in an alarm system, and wearing your seatbelt. There's just no practical way, as we're finding out, of having the equivalent of Secret Service protect us in the air. And there's no reason for it either.

I'm against the shoe screening thing. If the metal detector doesn't beep, don't screen them. I can't stand or walk comfortably without shoes on, especially on hard floors, due to plantar fasciitis. Expecting me to do so for the screening is a hardship for me, and actually causes damage to my feet. Stilettos are as dangerous as a knife or needlenose pliers and all three require close proximity and fairly expert use to cause reliable or even medium scale damage. We should just let them all on. Severity of use? In the amount of time you have to use one before being apprehended, the plane ain't gonna crash, but someone onboard could be hurt. But that threat is no different than walking down the street, it doesn't increase on a plane. (Unless maybe there are dehydration issues.) Besides, they're screening shoes for electronics. Anyone who really wanted to do damage could just hide electronics in their cell phone, digital camera, laptop, PDA, recharging circuits, extra drives, alarm clock, etc... rather than use their shoe. Just call your receiver in the luggage with your phone, for cripes sake. When every person carries roughly 4 electronic things with them (from my observations), ALL of them complex and most of them with wireless communicators, how are we expecting high school grads or even trained experts, to tell "dangerous" electronics from "benign" electronics in a 5 second scan? We travel with this stuff because it is NECESSARY for our lives. We can't and shouldn't ban it. But we also can't possibly screen out the dangerous wires from the safe wires. (Or should I call them garrotes?)

People can reasonably be expected to find 3 things at an inspection. Start cranking up the number of disallowed items and including things that are both random and harmless and this will distract screeners from the worst threats. We now have about 10 major things that get watched for, (explos.ives, aerosols, g.uns, some knives but not others, some tools but not others, matches, soda, water bottles, lotion, lipgloss, etc...) so either we need more people who only focus on their 3 things at every station, or accept that our screeners will find 9 of 10 items most of the time and just fail utterly to find 1/10th of the contraband. Since the contraband is mostly face cream and drinks, I can't bring myself to give a damn that these things are currently being missed. I do care that I'm wasting time loitering in a more dangerous situation while this exercise in futility and fear mongering is carried out.

Because that' not even getting to the part where both we and our stuff are less safe. We now spend lots of time outside 'secure' areas waiting in long, crowded lines that make excellent bo.m.b targets and provide fantastic pickpocketing opportunities. Think about it. Everyone in that line got out their personal ID, which is usually in their wallet or purse, then stands around for 15-30 minutes, occasionally shuffling forward and bumping into people while they scoot their bags forward. Any clever pickpocketer now knows excactly where and how to find the money of 80% or so of everyone in line. Many people don't even re-close their purses or backpacks.

Also, everyone now gets a good look inside your bag when you take stuff out for the screening. You're supposed to carry on valuables like jewelry, and many put them in cases that look like jewelry cases. Then you get hassled to go faster and shove your stuff through inspection before you have a hope of getting your person through. JUST SAY NO. Don't let your stuff through before you can reasonably retrieve it. Especially now that you've just flashed the contents and location to all and sundry. TSA agents are screeners, not people who will run after a pickpocket who can be in another state in 30 minutes. You think they'll lock down the airport for your laptop or grandma's ring? Think again.

Then there's the recommendation of: "get to the airport 2 hours in advance". (This is absolutely necessary for LAX these days; it's horrific. Plus I've spent more time there being hassled by police for pulling to the curb, then I actually have spent at the curb. Not exaggerating.) The problem is, if you hit a dry patch and actually get through security in record time, the non-hub airports are NOT DESIGNED to hold people for 2 hours. They schedule gates for an hour time block for a flight, not 2. When people get there too early, there's no where for them to go. In non-hub airports there is usually insufficient or too-distant food and entertainment. By the time you've allowed for extra traffic (1.5-2 hours for a 40 mile trip to LAX for me), 30 minutes to park, 2 hours at the airport, the half hour I wasted packing that damn baggie and the flight? That's 4.5 hours of pure punishment for something I never did and have no intention of ever doing. (Ok, the traffic is just LA, but the rest? It should all take half the time (and "none" for special packing). 1.5 hours to drive, 20 minutes to park and 30 minutes to get to the gate.

Instead of throwing money at screening the masses ever more minutely for things that aren't threats, we should have:
  • fixed planes,
  • upgraded planes,
  • given mechanics good raises for good work,
  • provided an extra flight attendant per flight,
  • provided more safety training for attendants (their job is your safety, not to be your waitress),
  • purchased AEDs for big planes,
  • strengthened cockpit doors,
  • paved runways,
  • replaced tires,
  • planned more safety, system, and ergonomic improvements,
  • provided more free parking shuttles to keep traffic away from crowds,
  • or redesigned pick-up areas to function better,
  • screened baggage handlers,
  • upgraded baggage handling capabilities,
  • upgraded bag tracking,
  • redesigned seats for comfort,
  • added more in-flight entertainment,
  • upgraded air traffic control software and hardware...
Pretty much anything but what we have been doing which is wasting our time and money in order for someone to have a press release saying they're doing something. I sent this list, or one like it, to the TSA a couple years ago. I don't know if anyone read it. Or could do anything about it even if they agreed with me. Sometimes the juggernaut is just going to run its own way and take you with it.

In conclusion, it's the insane TSA rules, severe invasion of privacy, and diversion of funds that is causing the airlines these troubles. [added: It's just not worth it to pay a premium for that punishment.] As far as I can tell, it's nothing to do with the airline companies themselves, bless their hearts. [Except that they like to book flights 3-6 months in advance which only works with stable gas prices. The price of gas and the devaluation of the dollar are also culprits, but I don't think would do the industry in without the aggravation.]


Tara said...

I have never left a comment for a blog in my life...but I read this and needed to say, I AGREE 100%! Great post! My bf is a flight attendant for American who has lost precious and needed work time due to the latest issues and who, in my opinion, takes the burden for the majority of the airlines decisions, even though I feel they suffer more than the travelers.
As a frequent traveler, 12,000miles in April so far,and more to go before it is over, I couldn't agree with this post more. Travel has become a burden in my job. A time suck I don't have time for....I could go on more, but you have hit the nail on the head with your post. Thanks.

CrankyOtter said...

Thanks so much for spending your first ever blog comment here, Tara! I appreciate knowing that I'm not just blowing hot air. (I'm preaching to the choir!) Play here any time.

I think maybe I'll fix it up a little bit, edit it to be a little shorter, and send it to my reps and some airline PR departments. Currently no one wants to get up and say "The emperor should be allowed to wear clothes while flying" because for some strange reason people really thing these rules are good for safety, and we can't ever say no to safety, even when it makes no sense.

janet w said...

Required reading Erika: we are held by the short and curlies by an industry that SO devalues our time, our money and our patience and just flat out LIES to us, constantly!

Up My Mind said...

I agree with you 100% Erika!!! Which is why for my trip home this summer I am seriously considering taking the train. It might cost as much as flying, and take longer, but I just do not want to fly. Period. Especially after the nightmare of my trip last December. :)