U.S. airport infrastructureIf you spend a lot of time on planes for work, there were probably very few surprises in this year's "Best of Business Travel" Awards from Business Traveler magazine. Of the 53 awards presented earlier this month, Air Canada took home five – including Best North American Airline for International Travel, for Business-Class Service, for In-Flight Services and for its Flight Attendants.

Two South Korean airlines, Asiana and Korean Air, were honored for having the Best Overall Customer Service, Best In-Flight Services, Best Trans-Pacific Business-Class Service and Best Flight Attendants in the world.

From a purely patriotic standpoint, I'm saddened that relatively few American carriers made it to this year's Business Traveler list for either domestic or international service. To be fair, United Airlines (UAL) did win Best Airline for North American Travel -- but considering the U.S. helped to pioneer commercial aviation, our standards have fallen pretty low in recent years.

Some analysts say the apparent malaise affecting U.S. airlines may go beyond the current economic downturn to something more fundamental: a national gap in transportation infrastructure.

Playing Catch-Up With Business Clientele

Let's focus first on business travelers. While not the largest group of commercial passengers, they certainly punch above their weight when it comes to the percentage of airline revenue they generate. And after the past several years of economic belt-tightening, business travel is on the rebound. A recent report from the International Air Transport Association says the number of passengers traveling up-front, in business-class and first-class seats, was nearly 11% higher this past October than for the same period a year earlier.

But most U.S. carriers are playing catch-up when it comes to accommodating their lucrative business clientele. Many airlines and airports outside of the U.S. have been specifically targeting business travelers with extensive support services like free WiFi and mobile charging stations for electronics (one U.S. exception, according to Business Traveler, is Denver International Airport – which won the Best North American Airport award).

And there's been a lot more emphasis in recent years on getting passengers to and from airports to major metropolitan areas. "It's all about ease of travel," says Business Traveler Editor-in-Chief Eva Leonard, "about helping travelers achieve seamless travel."

A Vanishing "Culture of Service"

But that seamless travel is becoming more of a dream for passengers using American airports and airlines. "The U.S. airline industry has thought of itself as being separate from other modes of transportation," says Andrew Goetz, professor and faculty member in the University of Denver's Intermodal Institute and the Urban Studies Program. "They don't see themselves as a part of an intermodal system. So there's very little support in the airline industry, and even in the airport community, for more effective ground transportation [and] ground access -- even though they recognize better ground transportation would help airlines and airports."

The recent economic downturn has not only affected what Goetz calls the "culture of service" on most American carriers but it's also creating dilemmas for local governments having to make hard choices between desperately needed investment in transportation infrastructure and balancing their already-tight budgets. "Funding sources are going to be getting tighter for [transportation] projects that are going to make that kind of seamlessness feasible," he says -- noting that the newly elected governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have pledged to give back hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for proposed high-speed rail projects in their states.

Goetz worries that such budget balancing is shortsighted. "To be competitive in the future, in terms of our economic productivity, I would say investing in this transportation infrastructure -- good, solid, sound projects -- makes all the sense in the world," he says.

"Look at what China is doing," he points out. "They have a lot of capital, and they're investing in transportation infrastructure. They're building high-speed rail, they're building connections to their airports, they're building airports. It's at a scale that probably rivals, or maybe exceeds, what we were doing in the '50 and '60s, when we were building the interstate highway system and building airports, building a lot of infrastructure. Those things are fundamental to long-term economic growth."

Airline passengers in the U.S. stuck waiting for their flight have plenty of time to read about China's future-looking infrastructure projects and ponder the implications.

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December 22 2010 at 2:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Your a MORON, that's based on your ignorant comment!

December 20 2010 at 6:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I think the business model of US domestic carriers is simply broken. Those carriers spent to much time trying to make flying accessible and affordable to all. I could care less whether little Suzie and Bobbie can go to visit grandma for Christmas or whether or not the average family can afford to go to Disneyland. Let's reinstitute comfort and service in air travel and let's be willing to pay more for it.

December 20 2010 at 5:00 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Airline travel used to be all about service instead of being on a cattle car. All travelers, from first class on down are more than tired of being nickle and dimed to death.
Re the European example of rail, the US is too large and scattered for this scenario to work on a national scale. The model would be viable for NYC, Chicago, LA, Atlanta, Wash DC and Houston.
I fly through Denver International all the time. The next trip through DIA begins in three hours. It is not that great either. If DIA is the best, I wish the writer would have mentioned the worst place.

December 20 2010 at 1:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

US needs new infrastructure. Travel to Germany fly into Frankfurt airport, catch the train (terminal is in the airport) to your destination 50 miles away (train runs every 30 minutes). Drops you off within 1/2 mile to your destination (walk or take a bus every 15 minutes) you are where you want to be. The US has forgotten the train system. For traveling less than 3-4 hours trains are the way to go.

December 20 2010 at 12:09 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

I travel extensively overseas to do service at LNG terminals, and I am extremely glad that we require the customer to pay for the business class airfare for flights over 6 hours. It changes the flight experience from survival mode next to crying babies, and getting very little sleep (sitting almost straight up) to a relatively nice experience.

I have experienced business class on many different airlines, and there is a huge difference between airlines. Asian hospitality is difficult to match, but Qatar Airways and Emirates do a very good job, too.

What I have observed is a fundamental difference in how flight attendants view themselves and you as the customer. As an American myself, it's easy for me to pick up that American flight attendants usually view themselves as peers, and it can make for a friendly exchange. But Asian (and other) cultures seem to view themselves as even a little subservient, and they make you feel like royalty. You feel very honored, pampered, and respected when flying business class on one of those airlines. I try to do my part to respect and thank them, as well.

Actually, I think it's a good attitude for everyone to have, viewing others as a little more important than yourself. Unfortunately, that's not the general American attitude. We are taught by culture to look out for number one. Push yourself forward, be important! Make everyone respect you! But that is not what is taught by Christ.

December 20 2010 at 10:55 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to photographer468's comment

Excellent post photographer468.

December 20 2010 at 12:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply