Air Travel Nightmare Exposes Government Failings

For years, many conservatives took the position that government has only two valid functions — deliver the mail and defend our shores.

I don’t want to get into an argument about the quality of mail service today but let’s add a third function of government to that list: get us on our airlines flights in time so that our vacations aren’t put at risk.

There are two main federal agencies involved in air travel these days: the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. Both are failing miserably. Problems faced by air travelers have been well chronicled recently by leading newspapers and the television networks. Let me add my own personal story to these sad tales of woe and offer some observations about how to fix the problem.

I recently traveled to Europe on a long-delayed vacation. Both departing and returning flights were booked through New York’s Kennedy Airport. Kennedy, unfortunately, is a poster child for what’s wrong with air travel in this country. Both the FAA and DHS have made a bad situation at Kennedy even worse.

My initial trip was scheduled to be from Washington Dulles to Athens, Greece, with a flight connection at New York Kennedy. When I arrived at Dulles, I was informed that my flight to Kennedy had been cancelled because of weather and that I would need to take a cab to Washington National, a shuttle to New York's La Guardia Airport and a cab to Kennedy. I did all this, arriving at Kennedy 45 minutes prior to departure but was barred from even entering the terminal handling international flights because the flight had already been called for boarding.

I was then sent across the street to another terminal for re-booking.

OK, I understand about weather and problems can happen. However, what occurred once I entered the second terminal was chaos. There were no competent airport or airline staff to answer question raised by me and hundreds of other stranded passengers, many of whom were victimized by the late arrival of connecting flights.

Finally, after standing in line for more than two hours, I found a very dedicated and competent Delta ticket agent who spent the next 45 minutes finding an alternative flight. “Just get me to Europe and I’ll figure out the rest,” I told her. She got me to Brussels and my vacation was salvaged, no thanks to anyone else at Kennedy Airport.

Over-scheduling of flights in and out of Kennedy, recently approved by the FAA, clearly contributed to the massive traffic jam at Kennedy. This incredibly stupid decision by the FAA is discussed below.

What happened on my return flight from Venice to Washington Dulles with connection at New York Kennedy was totally inexcusable. My Delta flight arrived at Kennedy on time and I had one hour and 20 minutes to make my connecting flight to Dulles.

However, it took an hour and a half just to get through customs and once again I had to take cab to La Guardia, a shuttle to National Airport and a cab to Dulles to pick up my car. The reasons for the delay in getting through customs were simple: Thanks to the FAA, multiple large international flights arrived at virtually the same time, causing long lines to even get to the customs area; seven of the 21 customs booths set aside for processing U.S. citizens were totally unmanned.

This occurred at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday. Where were the customs officials? Customs officials work for the Department of Homeland Security. It was a classic case of your tax dollars not at work.

It’s not like the problems at Kennedy are a secret. The New York Times on July 12th reported that for the first five months of 2007, 29.1 percent of all departures from Kennedy have been delayed. It stated that the main cause for flight delays at Kennedy “was a federal decision (by the FAA) at the start of the year to remove the limit at Kennedy on the numbers of arrivals and departures between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.….This helps explain why the number of flights at Kennedy surged 26.4 percent in the first four months of this year.”

So what do we do about the truly dreadful situation at Kennedy and other major American airports?

Congress (are you listening Henry Waxman and Jim Oberstar?) needs to call the FAA in for some grilling about why it has permitted major American airports to become clogged beyond capacity. And the Department of Homeland Security should be told to do a better job of running customs and routine security screening or get out of the business.

One of the people standing in line with me at Kennedy waiting to go through customs suggested that maybe we should turn the customs booths over to the people who run Disney World. They seem to be pretty good at moving lines along quickly.

And maybe the FAA should direct move international flights through other large American airports around the country rather than jamming them up in just a few. Every European airport I traveled through (Brussels, Paris, Rome, Naples and Venice) did a better job of processing flights than the American airports I have recently visited.

The people handling air travel in our country are making the folks at the postal service look good by comparison.

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Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.