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Obama and McCain Strike Out on Travelers' Issues

In this intense presidential campaign, the two major candidates have talked about many issues, but they've said very little about issues affecting travelers. Here's where we think they stand.

In this intense presidential campaign, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have talked about many issues. But as air travel gets more crowded, delayed and expensive, roads and bridges crumble, and fewer foreign travelers decide to brave our strict security procedures to enter the U.S., the two candidates have said very little about issues affecting travelers and the travel industry.

In tough economic times, travel industry issues are very relevant to Americans' pocketbooks. According to the Travel Industry Association, travel and tourism is a $1.6 trillion industry generating $110 billion in tax revenue a year. The industry employed 7.5 million people in 2006, and that's not counting all of the folks who work at stores, restaurants and other venues patronized by both travelers and locals.

We emailed each campaign twice with a list of questions; both declined to respond. We won't take it personally. The Travel Industry Association has also tried to ask the candidates what they're going to do for travelers, and they seem to have been ignored, too.

We've marshaled the candidates' position statements, press and third-party reports to try to suss out what the candidates think about our struggling airlines, our broken-down railways, our crumbling roads and the inbound travel industry.

Air Travel

Airlines are merging. Flight delays are rampant. Airfares are going up, and people are getting stuck on the tarmac for hours at a time. What do Obama and McCain think?

Obama's transportation position paper blames "a record number of flight delays" on "an outdated air-traffic control system and overscheduling at airports already operating at full capacity ... Moreover, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has failed to work well with our nation's air traffic controllers, neglecting to treat them with the respect they deserve. Obama will work with Congress to modernize the nation's air traffic control system and he will direct the new FAA Administrator to work cooperatively with the frontline air traffic controllers to restore morale and improve working conditions and operations at the agency." According to Popular Mechanics Obama favors hiring more air traffic controllers.

If you read between the lines of a highly polemic AFL-CIO page on McCain's aviation policies you'll find that McCain is interested in privatizing or contracting out air traffic control. He's for allowing foreign airlines to compete on U.S. routes, and for more foreign investment in the U.S. airline industry. The AFL-CIO opposes these things, but needless to say, many other people support these ideas.

Neither candidate has stepped forward for travelers on "passenger rights" issues, including regulating whether airlines should provide comfort or compensation to passengers affected by delays and cancellations.

Rail Travel

Bring up the subject of Amtrak, and you'll find some of the starkest differences in the candidates' positions.

McCain has been one of Amtrak's greatest opponents for years. He has opposed increasing Amtrak funding and referred to Amtrak as a symbol of government waste, according to the Boston Globe. "Amtrak should be restructured to eliminate its reliance on the American taxpayers and to allow for its privatization," he said in 2002, according to a Brookings Institution report from August 25.

Obama says he is "a strong supporter of federal financial support for Amtrak. Obama believes we need to reform Amtrak to improve accountability. As president, Barack Obama will continue to fight for Amtrak funding and reform so that individuals, families and businesses throughout the country have safe and reliable transportation options. Barack Obama supports development of high-speed rail networks across the country. Providing passengers with safe high-speed rail will have significant environmental and metropolitan planning advantages and help diversify our nation's transportation infrastructure. Our domestic rail freight capacity must also be strengthened because our demand for rail transportation has never been greater, leaving many key transportation hubs stretched to capacity."

Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, is known as "Amtrak Joe" for his daily commute between Washington, D.C. and Delaware on Amtrak and his staunch support for increased funding for passenger rail.

Road Travel

For John McCain, energy policy and infrastructure policy are inseparable. "The nation cannot reduce its dependency on oil unless we change how we power our transportation sector," his Web site says.

McCain will offer a $5,000 tax credit for anyone who buys a zero-emission car; a $300 million prize for developing a viable electric car; a "rapid and complete" switch to "flex-fuel" ethanol-compatible vehicles; and enforcing mileage standards on carmakers.

McCain opposes a larger federal role in the transportation sector, according to the Brookings Institution.

Obama wants to increase those fuel-efficiency standards by 4 percent each year, provide a $7,000 tax credit for buying plug-in hybrid cars, and mandate that all new cars be "flex-fuel." In his transportation plan, he also discusses investing heavily in roads, highways and bridges with a "National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank" that will finance projects to the tune of $60 billion over 10 years.

Inbound Tourism

Even as tourism to the US declines, the two candidates have been totally silent on issues affecting the huge inbound tourism industry. As Arthur Frommer recounts here on our site, "While other foreign countries are enjoying regular and substantial increases in their incoming tourism, the U.S.A. is welcoming fewer tourists in 2008 than visited our country in 2000. Recently, a Senior Vice President of the Travel Industry Association testified before a congressional committee that the shortfall in incoming foreign tourism had cost America "46 million visitors, $140 billion in lost visitor spending, $23 billion in lost tax revenue... and 340,000 jobs."

The Travel Industry Association tried to get answers from the candidates, but got nothing.

"We have confidence that both could be leaders in striking the best balance between security and travel facilitation, but to date neither campaign has addressed travel issues in-depth," TIA senior vice president Geoff Freeman said diplomatically via e-mail.

In a blog post in the Orlando Sentinel, Obama criticized a potential government-sponsored tourism advertising campaign. "Because, look, money's tight right now. And there are a lot of potential uses for that money. And I think people know where South Beach is."

McCain has stayed mum on the issue of declining tourism to the U.S. On his Web site, he says he wants to "continue implementation of the US-VISIT comprehensive visitor security program." US-VISIT is an umbrella term for a bunch of controversial border security measures including fingerprinting visitors both as they enter and as they leave the country.