No matter who wins, you lose.
Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican or pondering a protest vote for an independent presidential candidate in November, what you do at the ballot box is meaningless — at least as far as your travel is concerned.
Sure, travel is a $740 billion industry, but it’s a business Washington tends to take for granted. And one election isn’t likely to change a thing, right?
Hang on. Isn’t this election about change? Shouldn’t we expect more than the same old, same old?
That’s what I thought when I began researching a column about which presidential candidate cares most about travelers. The contenders couldn’t possibly believe we’re irrelevant. So I contacted each of the campaigns and asked them a series of questions about issues that are near and dear to travelers. I’ll get to the surprising results in a minute.
But first, let’s review some of the key concerns for travelers:
Record air travel delays and cancellations
Air travel may be safe, but it’s hardly reliable. Last year, more than a quarter of all flights were late, according to the Transportation Department, which has a pretty loose definition of “late” to begin with. That’s the second-worst year on record, but only by about a percentage point. Here’s a bigger picture of the airline industry’s year from hell. Now, to be fair to the candidates, there’s been some discussion about modernizing air traffic control systems during the campaign. But the airline problem hasn’t gained any traction. Is it because the front-runners fly privately chartered aircraft or because the airline industry has already paid off many of the contenders with campaign donations? Just asking.
Soaring fuel costs
Gas prices are near record highs, and there’s no sign they’re headed back to earth. I could underscore my point with a few statistics — crude oil near $100 a barrel, regular unleaded gas around $3 a gallon — but perhaps the best way to see how this issue affects you is to calculate the cost of your next road trip. You can do that on AAA’s useful Fuel Cost Calculator site. The candidates have spoken at length about how they would handle the Iraq quagmire. But when it comes to making your next family road trip more affordable, there hasn’t been a lot of talk, except maybe to propose vague initiatives to lessen our dependence on foreign oil. I think we’re entitled to something more specific.
It’s bad and it’s getting worse. Traffic is a $78 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy, according to the latest Urban Mobility Report published by the Texas Transportation Institute. That’s 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel and 4.2 billion lost hours for American workers. Why is traffic congestion such a problem? Well, it may have something to do with the fact that we can’t seem to build enough roads to accommodate all the cars, or that the thought of using mass transit makes us feel like we’re turning into Europeans. Perish the thought! Either way, our elected representatives just don’t see a problem, and the odds are pretty good that our future elected leaders won’t either. To get an idea of how much all of this matters, consider the “innovative” and “daring” program the Transportation Department announced last year to fight traffic. The budget: $1.1 billion. That’s about what it will cost to build the World Trade Center memorial.
New, confusing and expensive passport and transit rules
Last year’s passport problems, which forced thousands of travelers to cancel their summer vacations, are probably not over. New requirements went into effect earlier this year for crossing the border into Canada and Mexico and there’s more to come. At the same time, the price of a U.S. passport jumped from $97 to $100 in February, making an international trip less affordable to many Americans. Most of the campaign rhetoric about passports centers is about immigration issues, not the travel troubles of ordinary Americans. But there’s an economic impact that’s been all but overlooked: New passport requirements could cause hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue, as Sen. Patrick Leahy suggested last year when Congress debated the new paperwork requirements. Why isn’t this a campaign issue?
Declining value of the dollar
The greenback is looking a little pale these days. You have to go all the way back to 2003 to find a one-to-one dollar-euro conversion rate. One euro fetches nearly 1.5 dollars by today’s exchange rate, making a European vacation unaffordable to all but the richest tourists. You’d think we’d be swamped with international visitors as a result, but that’s not the case. There’s been a 17 percent decline in overseas travel to the United States since 2000, resulting in a loss of $100 billion in visitor spending, almost 200,000 jobs and $16 billion in taxes, according to the Travel Industry Association, a trade group. And while there’s a lot of discussion about an economic stimulus plan among the candidates, there isn’t a great deal of talk about the demise of the dollar.
It isn’t that the candidates are not talking about Amtrak. It’s that they’re saying the wrong things. John McCain and Barack Obama haven’t taken a public position on Amtrak funding during their campaigns, as far as I can tell. But Hillary Clinton last year called for a $1 billion investment in intercity passenger rail systems. Sen. Clinton argued that rail service “should be viewed as a critical component of the nation’s transportation system.” I agree, and I think most Americans who spend half their day stuck in traffic would agree with that. But $1 billion? Might as well order up another World Trade Center memorial while you’re at it.
Are candidates doing enough to address the needs of travelers? Not yet.
In a poll conducted ahead of the primaries in South Carolina and Florida — two states where travel is critical to the economy — nearly two-thirds of prospective voters said they don’t believe the 2008 presidential candidates have adequately addressed a travel system that is increasingly viewed as “flawed and frustrating.”
“There’s still a long way to go, and we trust these issues will arise on their agenda,” says Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association. “Candidates have yet to realize what the public is demanding of them.”
They might start by answering a few questions.
A few weeks ago I sent a polite e-mail to each campaign’s media representative, asking for their candidate’s views on the six issues I just raised. At the time, it was still a six-person race — Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama on the Democratic side and Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Mitt Romney on the Republican side.
Not one of them bothered to respond.