Transportation systems are run by people making judgment calls that technology cannot make for them.
To know what you’re covering, you have to know who you’re covering.
Seeing transportation workers on the job is more difficult today than it was before Sept. 11, 2001. Security restrictions mean you probably won’t be able to haul bags with an airline ground crew, sit in with a locomotive engineer or staff a station at an airline ground-control tower, as reporters once did with relative ease. But there is much to be learned on the public side of the security firewall.
Station managers at airports or train stations not only know everything about what is going on in their domains, they can educate you about larger operating issues and guide you to other sources, even if they’re not willing to be quoted. Schedule monthly background conversations with these people.
Correspond with every transportation industry worker who e-mails or calls you, even if their tone starts out angry or belittling. The mere act of getting back to them will often disarm their anger. From there, the right approach can turn them into valuable sources.
Leave your desk and explore
Go to any event that gives you a chance to mingle with these people. “Get to the airport whenever possible,” says Ted Reed, who has covered the airline industry for two decades for the Miami Herald, Charlotte Observer and TheStreet.com. “Take them up on every invitation, no matter whether it’s newsworthy or not – anything that gets you in front of the key people.”
If you’re covering a particular airline in a city where it has major hub operations, there are probably union officers in your community. Get to know them at their favorite sandwich shop or watering hole, which most likely will be just off the airport grounds – and bring you into contact with rank and file employees.
“They may be reluctant initially, but you don’t have to go out of your city to have lunch with a top union official,” Reed says.
Dig behind the numbers
The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics keeps exhaustive statistics on a monthly basis about every commercial airport in the United States; Amtrak does likewise for every route, including intrastate ones it operates under contract to state or local governments. You can track how many people come and go, where they’re going, how much they pay on average and how often they get there on time. You can track market share changes, month to month, for every airline that operates at your local airport.
Follow the money that flows through your local airport out of the so-called passenger facility charges that travelers pay on every ticket. Most U.S. airports assess these charges to pay for airport improvements. You’ll find how much your local airport charges – most charge $4.50 a flight segment, the most allowed by law – and how much money they’re due to collect from PFCs.