Expert: Don't blame high fuel costs for flight cuts

Rising jet fuel prices are being cited by airlines as the reason for canceling service to smaller U.S. cities, but an increasingly broken air travel system is as much to blame, according to a new book by a former high-level Federal Aviation Administration official.

“When it comes to air travel today, everyone has a horror story,” writes George Donohue in the understated opening line of his new book, “Terminal Chaos.”

An associate administrator for research and acquisition at the FAA from 1994 to 1998, Donohue offers a detailed explanation of what he says are both the causes of and solutions to an aviation system in crisis. Today's mess of delays, cancellations and airport chaos are the product of more than two decades of bad decisions, he said.

In an interview, Donohue argued that rising fuel prices are providing political cover for legacy airlines like American, United and Delta to retool and go after their smaller, more profitable competitors like Southwest Airlines. Part of this retooling is halting less profitable service to smaller airports like Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Chattanooga, Tenn., New Haven, Conn., and Hagerstown, Md.

“I think the failure to fix the system is going to lead the legacy air carriers to chase after the low-cost business model and they will go only for the business flyers and the big markets. Low-cost leisure air travel has come and gone,” Donohue said.

Airlines are reducing their unionized work forces, cramming passengers onto smaller planes and reducing the number of seats available. That will lead to more passengers on fewer flights, for which airlines can charge higher ticket prices. And although there will be fewer airports served, there will also be more traffic on the larger, already congested airfields.

“Our policies have set the system up to not be able to accommodate a large network of inter-city transportation, and we're seeing it with mergers of airlines,” said Donohue. “I don't think this is a temporary economic-downturn issue. I think it goes to the heart of it — that our air transportation policy is broken.”

“Terminal Chaos” details the ways in which Donohue and co-author Russell Shaver III believe the air travel system is broken. They say the FAA and airlines work collaboratively to make optimistic assumptions about weather that result in routine over-scheduling of flights, followed by a domino effect of departure delays and flight cancellations.

There are numerous unsettling surprises for regular flyers in the book, including the fact that very little of aviation communications involves digital data transfers like those used by cell phones and the Internet.

Many of Donohue's views are shared by Mary Schiavo, who was the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general from 1990 to 1996.

“The system is very, very broken. And unfortunately the problem with the broken system starts at the top,” said Schiavo, now an attorney with the law firm Motley Rice in Mount Pleasant, S.C.