OBAMA'S BUSINESS-TRAVEL REPORT CARD
By Joe Brancatelli
September 8, 2010 -- The midterm-election campaign officially began in Milwaukee on Labor Day. You could tell it was campaign season because President Barack Obama was at the podium in 2008-style shirtsleeves, there was a campaign twinkle in his eye, and he gleefully ragged on Republicans who "talk about me like a dog."
Oh, that and he actually talked about fixing roads, repairing runways, and building rail lines. Presidents (or people campaigning for any office) only talk about business-travel infrastructure during election season. Our issues almost never seem to rate presidential attention at any other time in the cycle.
Now that Election 2010 has really begun, it seems appropriate to rate the 44th president on some of the key issues that matter to people who live their lives on the road. I doubt this or any other business-travel scorecard will affect a single House or Senate race this year, but I hew to the outdated belief that elected officials should be judged on what they did, what they didn't, and who they tasked to get the nation's job done.
Appointing a Secretary of Transportation: Grade A
In a memo to the president on Inauguration Day in 2009, I expressed deep reservations about his choice of Ray LaHood, a Republican member of the House, as Transportation Secretary. It smacked of the same meaningless cabinet tokenism that led Republican President George W. Bush to choose the ineffective Democrat Norm Mineta for the same position. But LaHood has proven his mettle at Transportation. LaHood's DOT has solved problems like passenger's rights, which had festered on the backburner for more than a decade. LaHood has also slammed airlines with big fines for maintenance foul-ups, aggressively enforced existing consumer-protection regulations, and put the travel industry on notice that his DOT is serious about doing its job.
Appointing a Transportation Security Administrator: Grade F
Over the tepid objections of Bush, Congress federalized airport security with the creation of the TSA after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The agency is arguably the one place where average Americans interact with the national-security policy. It took virtually no time at all for the TSA to become a bureaucracy that seemed more intent on annoying everyday flyers than catching terrorists. Obama needed to select an administrator quickly to put his own stamp on the agency and to redefine and streamline its mission. Instead, he waited almost a year to make an appointment. Then he let one Senator (Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina) hold up confirmation until the candidate (Errol Southers) was doomed by a series of relatively minor missteps. Obama's second appointee also quickly tanked. It wasn't until June that Obama got former FBI man John Pistole on the job.
Rebuilding the Transportation Infrastructure: Grade D
Candidate Obama promised to revitalize the national economy by creating jobs doing basic and long-overdue tasks: rebuilding the nation's roadways; repairing at-risk bridges and tunnels; improving airport runways; implementing the so-called NextGen system air-traffic-control system; and upgrading and extending passenger rail systems. As president, he claimed the controversial 2009 economic stimulus bill would concentrate on "shovel ready" projects like transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, there were very few construction projects in "the stim," and Obama allowed his opponents to paint those that were as folly. (Remember the specious claim that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was going to build a railroad between Disneyland and Las Vegas?) Obama's $50 billion proposal on Monday in Milwaukee—start rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads, construct 4,000 miles of rail lines, fund NextGen air-traffic control—is a reminder that his administration has barely started on the task.
Airlines and Airport Security: Grade B
Cruel as it sounds, airline and airport security is a numbers-oriented affair: If travelers die in terrorist attacks, the system is deemed unsafe. If they don't, only security critics carp and no one pays attention to them. So with the exception of the nearly farcical Christmas Day "underwear bomber," the system is considered safe by the average American. However, the TSA is about to ratchet up its security kabuki at airport checkpoints, thanks to the widespread installation of devices that make distressingly clear "whole body images" of passengers. The machines have a panoply of opponents, some who feel they expose passengers to excessive amounts of radiation and some who feel they simply expose too much of a passenger. There's even a grassroots protest movement afoot. The goal would be for passengers to refuse to step into the body scanners and demand a pat-down instead. That would bring the airport checkpoint system to a halt. As usual, TSA bureaucrats, including Obama's new administrator, seem oblivious to the public's legitimate concerns and potential resistance.
Consumer Protection for Passengers: Grade A
If business travel received more attention, the job that Obama's Transportation Department has done protecting passengers would be the poster child for effective government regulation. When a commuter carrier operating for Continental Airlines last year held 47 flyers hostage in a small aircraft overnight on a Minnesota runway, the DOT broke an 11-year deadlock over "passenger's rights." It slammed the offending parties with big fines and then created a sweeping series of passenger protections. Despite vocal opposition from the airline industry and its claims of "unintended consequences," the regulations have all but eliminated the problem. The DOT now proposes to protect passengers from fare games, hidden extra fees, and other abuses. It has reasserted its statutory role as the sole regulator of airline activity and levied harsh, attention-getting fines for everything from maintenance snafus to violations of advertising rules and procedures for carrying passengers with disabilities.
Policing Airline Alliances and Mergers: Grade B
As the legacy carriers founded before 1978’s Airline Deregulation Act merge and create merger-like international alliances, the obvious question is: How does the U.S. government help foster a profitable climate for the old guard while keeping the playing field level for upstarts. The balancing act is tricky, to say the least. Obama's Transportation Department bowed to the inevitable by approving an American Airlines-British Airways antitrust arrangement. Some critics think it could have exacted a higher cost than just a few takeoff and landing positions at crowded Heathrow Airport in London, however. Now that the Justice Department has blessed the United-Continental merger, the DOT will probably have to approve it too. But the Transportation Department did put the brakes on an attempt by Delta Air Lines and US Airways to swap assets in New York and Washington. If the DOT had approved the carriers' plan, Delta would have essentially controlled New York's LaGuardia Airport and US Airways would dominate Washington's Reagan National Airport. The DOT's terms for approving the trade were so harsh that the carriers withdrew, although they are pursuing a slow-track appeal in the courts.
The Fine Print…
A follow-up on last month's column about credit cards and foreign-exchange fees: As predicted, Chase and Hyatt hotels last week announced a new Visa card that does not charge currency fees when travelers use it overseas. Most other Visa and MasterCards charge as much as 3 percent for overseas transactions. American Express charges 2.7 percent on most of its cards.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.