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Allan Sayle's Comment

Column 15: 13 August 2006.

Air travel and terrorism

“Is your journey necessary?” is a question posed to all during World War 2 so that unnecessary stresses on national resources would be avoided. As one awakes today, August 10, 2006, one is greeted with news of a foiled plot allegedly designed to destroy aircraft in mid-flight over the Atlantic Ocean. One finds oneself asking that WW2 question and considers every potential air traveler and business ought to ask it as well.

Flying ceased being a pleasure several years ago not only because of the security lines, checks and general harassment one experiences in merely getting to one’s seat on board an aircraft but also because of the cramped seating, awful food, indifferent or rude treatment dished out by scruffy cabin staff, frequently lost baggage and unsociable fellow passengers. In short, at all levels, in comparison to the service and experience of bygone years, quality has deteriorated.

Considering the time required traveling to an airport, parking one’s car, checking-in, getting through security, awaiting take-off, actually flying, disembarking, collecting luggage and then reaching one’s final destination, in America, at least, with its freeway system there is little to be gained traveling by air for a journey less than about 500 miles. Business people would argue they could get work done using their laptop computers, a fact which probably grew the market for that commodity. However, if today’s UK policy of disallowing laptop computers, cell phones and PDAs, in the aircraft cabin, requiring them to be checked in, the traveling business person cannot check email while waiting to board, write reports, prepare proposals or presentations, analyze spreadsheets, perform calculations, compile expense reports or do productive work. If cell phones cannot be used, does that herald the return of the old-fashioned phone booth, one wonders? Maybe. All-in-all the disruptive effects make it essential that the old question is repeated: is the journey necessary?

Actually, given modern communications technology, the answer in most cases will be “no”. Video conferencing will get a substantial boost. It is now very economical and becoming more so. The cost of internet communications is inexorably falling while the cost of traveling is inexorably rising. The latter does not only include the price of the air ticket but also the cost of the traveler’s time. Moreover, given the constantly ascending price of oil, one knows the airfares will continue to rise. If video conferencing is introduced, the savvy firm might for a while experience a competitive edge of a boost in profits through the savings on reduced travel costs. None of that even touches of the increasingly recognized phenomenon of road warrior “burn-out” to which air travel is a major contributor and which reduces the frequent traveler’s effectiveness. So much for business travel.

The air transport industry has been planning for an expected rise in tourist air travel. How might that industry be affected? The expectation has been for ever more intercontinental tourism. Can one expect those tourists to ask that same question? Consider, again, America.

It is a large country with mountains, hills, deserts, forests, plains and prairies, rivers, gorges, oceans and great lakes. It has every type of scenery imaginable. True it does not have much in the way of interesting old architecture (cathedrals, churches and so forth) since Americans tend to tear down at regular intervals anything they build and what they build is seldom built to last anyway. But, there is no small diversity in things to do and places to see. Why do Americans need to visit Europe (or any other continent) for a vacation? A nice thing to do, to be sure – but it is not necessary. And, for Europeans, there is no shortage of places to visit easily reached by road: the Channel Tunnel links Britain with the continent and vice versa. Better still, at least Europe has a fast and extensive railway network and service, though it is not especially cheap.

The amount of flying could be dramatically reduced. And if there are fewer flights and far fewer passengers perhaps air travel will become of less interest to the terrorist. Perhaps the environmental damage allegedly caused by modern jets would be reduced, though car travel might increase offsetting such benefits. Perhaps Messrs Boeing, Airbus et al will suffer as orders for new aircraft are cancelled or other wise drop. And, yes, the economic infrastructure serving the air travel industry will suffer (taxi cabs, airport workers, caterers – that is suppliers of pretzels and peanuts for hungry passengers and so forth). One does not owe them a living.

For years, I have hated flying. This latest event persuades me to enjoy my vacation this year by car, instead of going overseas as my wife and I were planning. (My neighbors have already resolved to cancel their holiday in Switzerland and go, instead, probably to Canada. Lucky Canada.) In business, it persuades me to consider carefully what assignments I will accept and to rigorously ask “Is that journey really necessary?”

Does that infer I am giving in to terrorism? Actually, I do not think so. When compared to bygone times, air travel has become a miserable undertaking, far less “glamorous” than it was. Like many other ordinary people, long ago I became weary of being a person who was regarded as a potential criminal or homicidal maniac who had to constantly prove his innocence and law-abiding nature whenever he wished to fly somewhere. The old, cherished legal presumption of innocence disappeared years ago in Europe through the antics of the IRA, Bader Meinhof, Red Brigade and similar groups. That loss is now global.

Baggage searches and body checks, while understandable, are an intrusion on privacy. Rather as people who have been burgled at home remark the most unpleasant thought is of a stranger’s hands having been through one’s belongings and personal items, these airport checks leave an unpleasant feeling. Photo identity cards, something we British considered a hallmark of the totalitarian state, things previous generations fought fiercely against, (WW2) are in place together with other schemes: biometric information etc. Those, too, are understandable. Phones can be tapped, credit card transactions, library borrowings, reading habits, organization memberships and video rentals analyzed. The cell phone lets the state and other people know where one is, where one has been – what one’s “free” movements are or have been. There is now talk about mandating a location chip into every new car made so as to track movements (GPS technology makes this virtually costless for those wanting to know such matters) and even of implanting chips into children. Everything is justified with the unassailable argument of security and safety. Even so, it all seems so endless and tiring. So, when I hear someone telling me we must fight for our freedoms and traditions, I wonder: which of them are left?

We in “quality” worry about the quality of goods and services we supply. Of greater importance, though, is the “quality of life” that our families, our communities and we enjoy. It is a matter to which we pay insufficient attention and for which the quality profession has no effective quality programs or quality standards. It reduces to the Golden Rule. But, sadly, not everyone practices it and nobody practices it all the time, without exception. Today’s events demonstrate that fact and are the result of a failure to practice it. The Golden Rule is the best quality program and standard anyone can adopt. When it is ignored others must make a choice in order to protect their own quality of life.

Like everyone else’s, my destiny is unknown. Like everyone else, my journey through life is unavoidable. My journey by air travel is not. At least I can retain that freedom of choice.


© 2006 Allan Sayle Associates. All rights reserved.

Web: www.sayle.com
Email: Publish@SaferPak.com




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