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The Obama effect: How travel will change

Folks certainly were friendly after the recent presidential election — but can the new president make the skies friendlier as well?
/ Source: Independent Traveler

On the night of the U.S. presidential election, supporters of the winning candidate and party, well, partied well into the next morning across the country. People took to the streets in Harlem, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington and Hawaii. Which was the biggest party? It's impossible to be sure, but odds aren't bad that it happened on foreign soil.

An informal poll by a friend of mine in Holland resulted in a 10:1 preference for the Democratic candidate this year, and the post-election party she celebrated lasted well into Wednesday afternoon (it is Holland after all). Expats and locals alike spilled into the streets in Paris, waving American flags, and crying and hugging. A reporter in London was given a huge kiss for the simple reason that "you are American."

I don't need or expect kisses from strangers, but there's no question that a better profile for the United States abroad will improve the experience of her citizens traveling internationally. Whether you voted for Obama or not, his presidency could have an impact not only on how we're viewed overseas, but also on policies that affect our flights, rail travel, roads and more. In particular, the Obama transition team's announcement this past weekend of an economic stimulus plan heavy on infrastructure investments can very likely be expected to include several items that could considerably improve flight and airport conditions.

A new face in the White House
The election of a new administration, and in particular an African-American president, was a euphoric moment for many people worldwide — so one might expect that Americans traveling abroad might enjoy better reception, friendlier natives, less withering criticism of our domestic and international policies, and maybe even embraces from our international friends, particularly in Europe.

That the new president is an African-American could also bode well in many places; while race remains a contentious issue worldwide, this is one change that can be embraced by people of color all over the world, irrespective of nationality or political inclination.

Sounds great — but these warm and fuzzy feelings may not necessarily be here to stay. How so?

It's the economy, stupid
In large part our reception overseas faces the same massive challenge the new president will on January 20 — a blindingly large financial crisis. Many international policy experts and regular citizens alike believe that by messing around with massive leverage and questionable finance tools, we have greatly endangered the global economy, and need to exert equal corrective effort to get us all out of trouble. If the new president is unsuccessful in this regard, international opinion could turn pretty quickly — and we'll be back to hearing at dinner parties and on Eurail trains how awful we really are.

Presidential journey

Slideshow  12 photos

Presidential journey

Want to follow the roots of President-elect Barack Obama? Get ready to visit three countries, five time zones and six states.

Alas, we have seen a similar shift in the winds before, albeit under very different and decidedly non-celebratory circumstances. Back in 2001 and 2002, global sentiment in favor of the United States was so powerful that a few of the countries preparing bids for the 2012 Olympic Games floated the idea of withdrawing their proposals before the July 2003 deadline in order to effectively give the Games to New York. We all know that this wave of good feeling soon eroded away.

The pudding
When it comes to nuts-and-bolts policies that will affect everyday travelers, Obama has said little so far. He briefly addressed fixing some of the problems associated with control of our ports during the campaign, but not much more. However, the national transportation system as a whole is in trouble — exemplified by collapsing bridges, a severely antiquated air traffic control system and minimal mass transit options. Last week Obama specifically addressed dedicating resources toward improvement of these neglected but critical components as part of the promised stimulus program.

At the airport, Obama will very likely reverse the Bush administration's movement toward auctioning off airport takeoff slots, and accelerate overhaul of the ailing air traffic control system. Another challenge facing the new administration will be dealing with the TSA. In a few short years, it has morphed into a huge, entrenched bureaucracy that will prove resistant to swift or broad change. How the new president addresses appointments to high-level positions here will tell us quite a bit on whether the TSA will stop worrying about mother's milk and start worrying about our safety. One hopes that, in this case at least, the simple notion of change is a mantra that cannot go wrong.

On the campaign trail, Obama promised to appoint an FAA administrator who would strengthen the FAA and reform the safety oversight problems that resulted in numerous airplane groundings this year. If the sentiments of many of the travel associations and unions are any indication, most expect a better go of it under the new administration; for example, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and Air Travelers Association endorsed Obama. However, there is no question that the new president's travel secretary appointment will need to be a go-to, get-it-done person, or we'll see more of the same.

Finally, this new president-elect in particular seems unafraid to propose a bit of regulation in cases where excessive deregulation has gone astray. We all will certainly get a bit of practice at finding the middle way while straightening out the banking system — so perhaps a few select controls regarding airline behavior and passenger rights might not be far off. I'm not talking about free meals and headphones — how about full and timely disclosure of delays and cancellations, transparent pricing, no "gotcha" surcharges, and a minimum standard of customer treatment? Certainly travelers would not mind the hand, and from what we have experienced these past several years, the airlines could use a little guidance.

But back to the original question — when traveling abroad, will we be loved again, like the old days? In the end, I predict something more like a honeymoon, much like the one a newly elected president often enjoys among legislators, the press and the populace. It could be a long honeymoon, or at least one marked by exceptional weather. And the prospect exists that we really have found a good match, and the honeymoon extends for years — or maybe at the very least a good dozen months beyond the storied seven-year itch.