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A Memo to Obama

For the new president, some advice on what to do with Amtrak, American Airlines, airport security, the Transportation Department, airline subsidies, and Air Force One.

To: The New POTUS
From: Joe Brancatelli
Date: January 20, 2009
Re: The Travel To-Do List

Congratulations on your inauguration as the 44th President. I take you at your word that you will consider good ideas from anyone. And as much as I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss these matters with you on the basketball court--I'm old and slow, but remain a dogged defender and relentless rebounder-I'll settle for this memo to make my points about your business-travel agenda.

Don't Get Railroaded
It's great that you took Amtrak from Philadelphia to Washington last week. After eight years of outright hostility from President George W. Bush-his Administration once proposed eliminating every penny of Amtrak's federal subsidies--it's good to have a President who understands the value of passenger-rail solutions. But don't let the "national passenger railroad" zealots and railroad buffs bamboozle you. Americans don't want or need a "national" railroad; we've wasted uncounted billions of taxpayer dollars since Amtrak was created in 1971 by subsidizing substandard long-haul trains. What the nation needs is a titanic investment in high-speed, short-haul rail service between heavily populated major cities. What we need is inter-modal solutions that create express rail links between major airports, nearby suburbs and city centers. Recreating the 20th Century Limited between New York and Chicago isn't the answer. Creating a 21st Century Amtrak that links Chicago's O'Hare Airport to tens of millions of travelers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana is.

Tokenism at Transportation
I'm all for bipartisan cabinets, but I'm wary of the Department of Transportation being the dumping ground for a token appointee of the vanquished party. Your choice of retired Illinois Representative Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary makes him the only avowed Republican in the cabinet. Bush's sole Democratic cabinet member was Norm Minetta and his record at the department was dreary despite his being the nation's longest-serving Transportation Secretary. Minetta's problem: Bush didn't listen to him. Your staff's claim that LaHood will be different because he is part of your tight-knit Illinois posse is suspect now that his confirmation hearing was hastily delayed last week because you were still checking his background. It doesn't sound like LaHood is part of your Illinois inner circle and that raises the specter of another powerless token atop Transportation. My advice: Make sure LaHood gets substantial access to your decision makers and is publicly seen as having influence with you.

Deregulation's Original Sin
If your newly minted Chief Performance Officer, Nancy Killefer, is really going to go line-by-line through the federal budget, may I direct her attention to the $125 million boondoggle known as the Essential Air Service? Created 30 years ago as part of the Airline Deregulation Act, Congress meant it as a short-term stopgap to ensure that small communities wouldn't precipitously fall off national airline route map. But as one critic recently noted, these days it isn't essential nor much of a service. Who, after all, is served by an $850-a-head federal subsidy paid to haul a handful of flyers each year to and from Lewistown, Montana? Not residents, who got awful service, nor the airline (Big Sky), which went out of business last year. And why is the new E.A.S.-subsidized carrier, Great Lakes, being paid to connect Lewistown to Denver, 550 miles distant, when the airport in Billings, Montana, is just 95 miles away? Why does the D.O.T. want to pay Cape Air $1.2 million to connect Hagerstown, Maryland, to Baltimore-Washington Airport? And what traveler will pay about $60 each way to fly a 9-seat prop plane 67 miles to Baltimore when the drive from Hagerstown to Washington-Dulles Airport is just 54 miles?

From Point AA to BA
One decision the Bush Administration deferred was the request for anti-trust immunity from American Airlines and British Airways--the major players in Oneworld, one of the three global airline alliances. Key U.S. and international carriers in the competing Star and SkyTeam alliances have been granted various forms of anti-trust immunity, but the A.A.-B.A. request has foundered twice before. However, the previous stumbling block-British Airways' dominant position at London's Heathrow Airport--has disappeared. Lufthansa, mainland Europe's most important airline and the partner of United Airlines in the Star Alliance, will soon control Bmi, the carrier with Heathrow's second largest number of take-off and landing positions. And 2008's "Open Skies" agreement has permitted all of American Airlines' competitors to launch flights into Heathrow. I've opposed an A.A.-B.A. deal in the past, but there's no logical basis for denying it now. If anything, a stronger Oneworld Alliance and anti-trust immunity will increase travel options for flyers, not depress choice or increase fares.

It's Not About You
I note that you have followed presidential tradition and allowed Cadillac to build you a new, customized limousine. It's good that you "bought" American. But don't get caught up in the trappings of the office. Airbus, the European consortium, says it wants to build you a new version of Air Force One based on the Airbus A380, its double-decked leviathan. To quote a former president: Just say no. The existing aircraft that serves the POTUS, a tricked out Boeing 747-200, works just fine. Besides, the American people don't want to see you with too many new toys, especially when they are struggling to keep their economic houses in order.

Stupidity, Not Security
Federalizing the nation's airport security screeners after the 9/11 terror attacks was a given. The previous approach-private contractors who paid minimum wage and had few standards-was a joke. But seven years on, the Transportation Security Administration has become its own punch line. Rather than concentrate on smart, swift and efficient ways to process the vast majority of travelers who do not pose a security risk, the T.S.A. has done things like ban snow globes in carry-on bags; give screeners faux police badges; and create Big Brother computer systems such as CAPPS II and Secure Flight that invade our privacy without improving our security. Worst of all, T.S.A. assumes all passengers as guilty until they can prove themselves innocent during a humiliating, time-consuming charade at the security checkpoint. The imminent departure of T.S.A. Administrator Kip Hawley affords you the opportunity to bring in fresh blood, revisit the agency's purpose and procedures, and remind the workforce that flyers are passengers, not perpetrators.

The Fine Print.
Almost all of the business-travel issues I discussed in a column just before Election Day will also face you and your team. The precipitous decline in the price of oil may defer an immediate crisis in the domestic airline industry, but none of the large network carriers are financially sound. A long-term decline in passenger traffic could drive one or more of them back into bankruptcy in the next year or two.

Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.

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