broken airlines

This morning, the day before Thanksgiving, I awoke to news reports of storms on the East Coast causing havoc on the heaviest air travel day of the year. The usual vagaries of holiday air travel are happening again: canceled flights, airport closures, stranded travelers and skyrocketing complaints at airlines that everyone already hates. This song and dance is repeated every year at some point, whether near Thanksgiving or Christmas, and nothing is ever done. Millions of peoples’ holidays are ruined, complaints pile up and what should be a season of joy and togetherness is instead turned into a time of angst, anxiety and irritability.

It’s time to face the facts: the air travel system in the United States is totally dysfunctional. In fact it’s fatally broken. It needs to be completely revamped from stem to stern, because it simply isn’t working, and as the travails this Thanksgiving will again highlight, its failure is no longer acceptable.

The problem with the American airline system is simple to diagnose, but a very big problem: economically, it is incapable of functioning in the way that our society needs it to function. In order to remain profitable, airlines must pare down their operations to the bare bones. This means as few staff, as few routes, and as full planes as possible–all the time. There is no excess capacity, because that would cut into their profit margin. It’s not like United Airlines can keep a couple of extra planes in reserve in a hangar somewhere to add extra flights if, say, a snowstorm closes JFK Airport and a bunch of passengers are stranded. That wouldn’t profit United Airlines, whose already-scheduled flights, when they are able to resume, are at 100% capacity anyway; it’s more profitable to simply forget about the stranded passengers, say “Oh, we’re sorry,” and carry on with their bare-bones crews, overbooked flights and squalid airports. Thus, you get disasters like what’s happening today.

airport

If you’re traveling by air around the holidays, your chances of being stranded or significantly delayed are far greater today than they were in 1978, before deregulation.

The culprit for how our air system got so bad is not hard to identify. In 1978, Congress “deregulated” airlines, which had previously been heavily regulated, in the hopes that freer competition would open up the field to new companies offering more routes and more consumer choices. That’s not what happened. Instead, airlines began going bankrupt at frightening rates, and when new entrants into the market did show themselves, typically they got bought out by whichever one of the majors wasn’t in bankruptcy that week. In short, deregulation was an absolute disaster.

Deregulation is not necessarily a political issue. Though it sounds like a conservative policy, the champion of deregulation in Congress was Teddy Kennedy, the Senate’s most liberal member, and it was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. It had widespread bipartisan support.

Despite good intentions, there is simply no doubt that deregulation has been an abject and embarrassing failure. Robert Crandall, the former CEO of United Airlines, called it like it is when he said this:

“The consequences of deregulation have been very adverse. Our airlines, once world leaders, are now laggards in every category, including fleet age, service quality and international reputation. Fewer and fewer flights are on time. Airport congestion has become a staple of late-night comedy shows. An even higher percentage of bags are lost or misplaced. Last-minute seats are harder and harder to find. Passenger complaints have skyrocketed. Airline service, by any standard, has become unacceptable.”

What’s the fix for our broken air system? Remove the profit motive. Airlines should be reregulated and heavily subsidized with public money. A subsidized and reregulated airline system would provide for excess capacity, planes and crews in reserve, living wages and benefits for airline employees, and acceptable levels of service for customers. In turn, airline customers would pay the real costs of their air travel–the actual costs of fuel, maintenance, labor, airport upkeep, etc.–and not extras that have nothing to do with air travel, like dividends for shareholders or golden parachutes for airline executives. Air travelers should get what they pay for, and pay for what they get. A reregulated system would provide this.

carter

Jimmy Carter had a mixed record as President of the United States. Signing airline deregulation into law was clearly not one of his better ideas.

We also must inject a little humanity into our system of air travel. Travel is not just utilitarian. Especially on holidays, the air travel system, when working properly, brings families together. People take vacations not just to spend money, but for their personal, psychological and spiritual well-being. When an overstrapped air travel system breaks down because of a snowstorm at a major airline hub, the real human costs–the ones that can’t be measured on a balance sheet–ripple through everyone affected. These intangible benefits are worth preserving. A profit-driven system is utterly incapable of recognizing those benefits. Thus, we need a new system.

I myself was stranded by the great airline failure of December 2006, caused by a blizzard in Denver. The whole air travel system in the United States utterly collapsed, just as it’s likely to do today if the storms get worse. I remember sitting in a room full of stranded travelers who couldn’t get flights, not even on standby. Women were crying. Parents were trying to explain to their children that they weren’t going to see Grandma this year after all. People were shouting and cursing at anyone wearing an airline uniform who happened by. This was two days before Christmas, and it was a horrible sight to see.

It shouldn’t be like that. There’s no excuse for it being like that. After 35 years of failure, it’s time to wake up from the nightmare that our air travel system has become, tear it down and start over again.

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