Irwin Stelzer, a very intelligent commentator on economic issues, indulges too much air rage in his latest column. After running through a laundry list of typical air travel complaints, he reveals that his understanding of air traffic control funding, for example, is shaky:
Now consider the world’s airlines’ roles in all of this. They have by and large acted as if their customers’ experience in airports is none of their concern. . . . Unless, of course, he or she is sitting on the tarmac for a few hours, in which case the airlines are guessing that their customers are not completely up-to-date on the carriers’ reluctance to fund a new air-traffic control system that might eliminate such annoyances.
Well, the airlines are actually trying to set up a “new” system, which has its own merits but no hope of alleviating such annoyances in the next few years. They want general aviation to bear a greater share of the ATC funding burden. The airlines are indeed “reluctant” to continue funding an air traffic control system that cannot accommodate the increasing demand for air travel. The key to relieving congestion is to charge higher prices at the (less than ten) crowded hub airports where such congestion occurs. Of course, this will increase fares, but it’s a rational way to allocate seats on flights at premium times of day–times when Mr. Stelzer presumably prefers to fly.
On the plus side is the competition between Boeing and Airbus to produce a next-generation aircraft that is more passenger-friendly than anything manufactured in the past. Last week Singapore Airlines put the Airbus A380 into service on the Singapore-Sydney route, and promised “to change the way you travel, forever.” . . . Less affluent passengers–economy class goes for around $550–are promised more leg-room in all classes of service. Boeing’s competitor, the 787, has hit production delays but should be available some time next year, and will also offer more comfortable seating.
Airlines choose their own seating and cabin configurations. Those fancy mockups on newairplane.com? They’re only hypothetical. You could fly on a very comfortable DC-9 and a wretchedly crowded A380. Not likely, but possible–it all depends on the airline. The biggest benefit of newer planes is that they have quieter engines.
Of course, none of this will matter if America’s airlines do what they are signaling they intend to do: keep capacity low enough to enable them to raise fares, lower service standards, allow their fleets to age rather than order new aircraft, and use the sardine can as a model for the seating configurations of the few new planes they do order.
It’s called business. Deregulation and competition (two things Mr. Stelzer favors) have forced airlines to shed high costs and maximize use of their resources. If airplanes were less crowded overall, we would see (overall) higher fares. If airlines gave everyone a rubber meal, whether they wanted it or not, they would charge higher fares. If airlines didn’t outsource their small-jet flying to subsidiaries and contractors which do it at rock bottom prices, then they would charge higher fares. Fares are, historically, very low. Trends in Europe suggest that they could possibly be driven lower. Today’s relatively low fares are the results of conscious deregulatory policies over the past thirty years. Mr. Stelzer should be praising the vitality of the airline industry to the high heavens.
Now–whether current models are sustainable is a big questions. Small-jet operators are facing a looming recruitment challenge, labor costs are going up, fuel is soon going to top $100/barrel, and (some people argue) low-fare carriers have already stimulated most of the discounts we’re likely to see. Moreover (and Mr. Stelzer, to his credit, does acknowledge the government role in unpleasant U.S. air travel), some government policies may make the industry more volatile.
I’ll close with a good idea Mr. Stelzer offers for airport security:
The bad news for passengers is that there seems to be little relief in sight from long lines at check-in desks and at security checkpoints. . . . Which brings us to Washington’s Dulles, London’s Heathrow, and other airports around the world. If lines lengthen at security check points no one has an incentive to add staff, open more lanes, or do anything to relieve the passenger’s plight. By contrast, such a situation at Whole Foods, Giant, or any respectable supermarket results in the opening of more check-out lines to relieve congestion. Store managers have an incentive to prevent customers from taking their business elsewhere; airport managers don’t, or think they don’t. Indeed, they have every incentive to keep costs down and profits up, even if that means providing a miserable service. Imagine what life would be like in an airport in which security personnel, or at least the managers, had their pay cut every time lines lengthened beyond some target limit, and the power to correct the situation.
America made the hasty and ill-considered decision to nationalize airport security after 9/11. It has been remarkably expensive, increasingly onerous to travelers, and far less accountable than private security firms that can lose their contracts if they don’t do the job. For all this expense and hassle, we get security no better than that before 9/11.
Flying the Crowded Skies [The Daily Standard]