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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Presidential Debate - Position on Travel

USA Today published a story today that had details on where Obama and Romney (and the respective parties) stand on issues in our industry.

Bill McGee, special for USA TODAY

Here's a rundown of key issues affecting travelers:

Amtrak. Perhaps there's no other transportation issue on which the party platforms are so starkly different. The Democratic position: "We support long-term investments in our infrastructure. Roads, bridges, rail and public transit systems, airports, ports and sewers are all critical to economic growth, as they enable businesses to grow." Indeed, Vice President Joe Biden may be Amtrak's most ardent federal supporter and Obama has repeatedly made investments in high-speed rail, as I've documented here. The Republicans differ: "Amtrak continues to be, for the taxpayers, an extremely expensive railroad. The public has to subsidize every ticket nearly $50. It is long past time for the federal government to get out of way and allow private ventures to provide passenger service to the northeast corridor. The same holds true with regard to high-speed and intercity rail across the country." House GOP members have also been critical of Amtrak, as evidenced last week by the Republican-led House Transportation Committee statement, "Taxpayers Gouged by Amtrak's Highly Subsidized Gravy Train."

Airports/Air traffic control. President Obama has offered full support for airport modernization ("We will give our businesses access to newer roads and airports, and faster railroads and Internet access"), and specifically the Next Generation Air Traffic Control system, as I noted here last year. The GOP supports more privatization: "A federal-State-private partnership must invest in the nation's infrastructure: roads, bridges, airports, ports and water systems, among others."

Transportation Security Administration. Ten years after it was established by the Bush Administration, the TSA continues to be a hot-button issue. A few months ago, USA TODAY reported Congressional opposition to Obama's proposal for raising aviation taxes to fund the TSA. On this issue, the GOP again supports privatization, claiming the TSA is "now a massive bureaucracy of 65,000 employees who seem to be accountable to no one for the way they treat travelers. We call for the private sector to take over airport screening wherever feasible and look toward the development of security systems that can replace the personal violation of frisking."

Passenger rights. It's no exaggeration to say that Secretary of Transportation Raymond LaHood—one of several Republicans appointed by Obama—has led the most pro-consumer DOT in history, something I witnessed first-hand while serving on the DOT's Future of Aviation Advisory Committee two years ago. Since 2009, the DOT has strengthened regulations on tarmac delays, pricing transparency and other key consumer issues. Although LaHood will be stepping down whether the President is re-elected or not, it seems fair to assume Obama appointees would continue this direction. While the specific topic of airline passenger rights has not been a burning issue during this campaign, the Republican platform does state the following on the topic of government oversight: "Regulations must be drafted and implemented to balance legitimate public safety or consumer protection goals and job creation. Constructive regulation should be a helpful guide, not a punitive threat."

MORE:  Ways to improve air travel (that government won't act on)

Airline outsourcing. Both parties are culpable when it comes to outsourcing airline jobs. In 2008, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters offered early support to Obama, who responded: "The practice of outsourcing aircraft maintenance overseas raises security concerns and pits our skilled mechanics making a middle class living against less skilled, less well protected workers abroad. I…look forward to working with you on the critical issue of outsourcing now and in the years ahead." However, the flow of offshore aircraft maintenance that began in earnest under George W. Bush has continued unabated under Barack Obama. But there does seem to be a philosophical difference between the parties. For the record, the Democratic platform claims that Romney's policy proposals would "encourage outsourcing by eliminating all taxes on the foreign profits of U.S. companies." As for the Republican platform, no permutation of the word "outsource" appears anywhere in the 54-page document.

Travel and tourism. The Democrats pledge to "conserve millions of acres of public lands while supporting rural recreation and tourism" while Republicans assert "a renewed federal-State partnership and new public-private partnerships are urgently needed to maintain and modernize our country's travel lifelines to facilitate economic growth and job creation." And while Obama has eased some travel restrictions to Cuba, Republicans specifically oppose any such measures while the Castro family remains in power.

Airline consolidation. Over the last decade the United States has lost such venerable aviation brands as TWA, America West, Northwest, Continental—and probably soon American. As I pointed out in 2010, mergers eventually mean fewer choices, poorer service and higher fares. According to industry trade group Airlines for America, six airline mergers were announced during the eight years of the Bush Administration, and seven in the first three years of the Obama Administration, and the Departments of Justice and Transportation haven't seen an airline acquisition they haven't rubber-stamped in years. Would a President Romney stem this tide? You decide.

Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at USATODAY.com at travel@usatoday.com. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.
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