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Monday, August 14, 2006

No Carry On Luggage; How Airport Security Impacts The Aviation Industry

Billions of dollars spent on "poor" security procedures may actually cause more airlines to go bankrupt.

If aviation authorities are going to stick to a "no carry-on luggage" rule for security reasons they had better consider all the consequences. Business travelers will weigh this change into every proposal for a quick sales trip to Chicago, New York, or other popular destination. Many airport concession stands, an important source of revenue, will cease to be profitable. There may be a small benefit to the airline, in faster aircraft turnaround times, but at what cost? Finally, the increased volume of stowed luggage will translate into greater volumes of stolen, damaged, and lost luggage. In the end, all of this may still not thwart a determined terrorist.

Many business travelers detest the idea of having to check baggage. Checking baggage means having to leave much earlier for flights. You have to wait in long lines just to get the few humans still employed at the counters to check a bag. No more convenient self-service kiosks or even printing your boarding pass at home. Once you arrive at your destination you can no longer go directly to the car rental buses or taxi stands. Now business travelers will have to stand idle by the conveyor belts hoping that their luggage made it on the flight.

If only 10% of business trips are cancelled due to the consequences of having to check all baggage, airline profits will seriously be impacted. So will the profits of any corporations that still depend on face-to-face visits for effective planning, operations, and sales. Add to that uncertainty the knowledge that the company laptop, full of customer information, may have been in the hands of a thief during the three-hour flight, instead of tumbling roughly through the baggage handling system. Does a busy executive really want to risk putting a laptop in checked luggage and having it damaged, corporate data lost, or even stolen by identity thieves?

Without carry-on luggage who will bother to make a big ticket purchase at the shops located near the gates? If no laptops are allowed who will use the wireless computer services? Does it make sense to buy a music CD or DVD if you cannot listen to it and must throw it in the trash before you board your flight? Why buy a simple bottle of water if you have to guzzle it down at the gate and cross your legs until the pilot says it is OK to get up and walk around in-flight?

Nevertheless, carry on baggage has been one of the biggest obstacles to the airlines goal of faster turnaround times at airports. The faster an airline can get the arriving passengers disembarked, and the departing passengers in their seats, the more money they can make with each jet. Southwest Airlines, using a policy of no assigned seats, has the fastest turnaround time and therefore greatest aircraft utilization rate of any airline. Remove carryon luggage from the equation and Southwest's aircraft utilization rate will only increase.

If aviation authorities do decide that eliminating carry on baggage is the best way to thwart would be aircraft bomb plots, they will need to raise the bar in another area of airport operations. Given the recent wage concessions well-paid airline executives have foisted ground crews, it may only be a matter of time before the people crawling in the belly of the plane decide to supplement their pay by selling items on eBay or at the local pawn shop. It will only be a matter of time before baggage handlers exploit the new treasure trove of laptop computers, cameras, and other easy-to-pawn valuables.

What about the increased airline personnel required to handle all the claims for delayed, damaged, or permanently lost or stolen baggage?

Airline and airport management must carefully weigh all these factors in the face of zealous government agencies that refuse to invest in research to improve security. After all, a determined suicide bomber will no doubt still be able to ship a remote controlled bomb or altitude-triggered explosive in the airline cargo hold. It is no secret that only a very small percentage of all airline cargo container shipments are subject to rigorous inspection. Surface to air missiles are also still available on the black market in places like Pakistan and eastern Europe. While these major loopholes remain all other efforts seem like a child placing a finger in the dike to stop an impending flood.

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