#PCMA 2010: Day 2, airline CEO session

The best session I went to at PCMA yesterday was by far the Masters Series session featuring Gerard Arpey of American Airlines and Gary Kelly of Southwest. Moderated by Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, it started off a little slow with some kind of "duh" questions about their feelings on the past 18 months of skyrocketing fuel costs, a spiraling economy, etc. I mean, it's been bad for all of us, including the airlines. Not surprisingly, both think we're doing the best we can to combat terrorism, and appear to be in favor of full-body scanners and the use of technology to find terrorists at the terminal (they didn't go into other aspects of anti-terrorism efforts or security issues that reach beyond the airport per se).

But it picked up and got really interesting once they started talking about how to handle future rises (more fees?), the airlines' carbon footprint and what they can/can't do to reduce it, the airline industry's need for a new air traffic control system and their outrage the the economic stimulous package included "not one dollar" to update this antiquated system developed in the 1950s and still dependent on that era's technology.

Kelly said there were three things that would make airlines greener:

1. Updating air traffic control. "It would be nice to be able to fly from point A to point B as the crow flies, not as it was routed in the 1950s," he said. The technology to do it is already available; it just needs to put assembled, he added, saying it could be done in a matter of months, not years.

2. Developing commercially viable alternative fuels.

3. Developing and deploying more fuel-efficient airline technologies.

Both airlines execs said they were already working on #3, such as employing "winglets" (I think that's what they said -- I don't know a lot about planes) that help reduce drag, and replacing old carpets and seat coverings with lighter weight versions.

And the proposed cap-and-trade idea? Don't get them started. A key quote from Kelly: "The thing that is galling to me about cap-and-trade is that it's the government that's keeping us from being more fuel-efficient [by not providing funds to update the antiquated ATC system], then taxing us for it."

Arpey was in complete agreement: "As an industry, we are mortified that one of the most crucial infrastructures was ignored in the bailout bill, despite all the headlines about delays that are mostly driven by the 50-year-old air traffic control system." He got applause when, explaining the need to replace the current radar-based system with one based on GPS, "You can put a GPS device on your children and know exactly where they are at all times, but we can't do the same so we know where our planes are."

Going back to the cap-and-trade idea, Kelly added that it was even more galling because the money raised through cap-and-trade on the airlines wouldn't go to updating ATC or anything to do with the airlines, but go to reducing the federal deficit in general. He said the tax and fees burden already amounts to close to 40 percent of the ticket price. And focusing on the airlines' carbon footprints is a bit out of whack with reality anyway, since planes are only responsible for 2 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted annually, while cars make up an infinitely larger percentage. And even cows that emit methane gas, one of the execs said, perhaps in a hat tip to being in Texas. "Maybe we need a steak tax."

Anyway, it was a really lively, interesting exchange. Definite educational highlight of the day.

Have to run. I'll try to at least catch up on yesterday's doings sometime this morning. I'm bummed that I can't seem to get wifi anywhere in the convention center, even at the Starbucks hot spot. The lines at the cyber cafe are so long that I feel I shouldn't do more than make sure the house hasn't burned down on a quick e-mail check. I'll try again to get connected today, but if that doesn't work, I'm going to give up and stop lugging the netbook around.

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