Patrick Smith always has something worth reading in his Ask the Pilot column over at Salon.com, whether it’s musing on the the ugliness of the A380 or defending the safety record of Latin American airlines. Today, he calls attention to the remarkable fact that despite all the reports of bad service today, skies clogged with regional jets, and regulation-happy governments, there’s a bright side to aviation today:
[W]e have lost an appreciation for just how cheap and accessible flying has become. The fact that for a few pennies per mile we have the ability to zip ourselves halfway across the country, or halfway around the world, in a matter of hours, in nearly absolute safety, is almost entirely taken for granted. Regardless of whether you’re a biased romantic like me or a semi-occasional traveler who wouldn’t know a 747 from a fire hydrant, that’s just wrong.
Let’s look at airfares for a minute. Whenever people moan about the cost of flying, I think of that old American Airlines ticket that sits on my bookshelf. It’s a flea market find, and it dates from 1946. That year, somebody named James Connors paid $334 to fly one-way from Ireland to New York — roughly the same that you’d pay on Aer Lingus today. Using the Consumer Price Index conversion, that $334 is equivalent to well over $3,500 in 2007.
Airline deregulation was only a spur to lower fares. Since the 1970s, better technology, more competition, and less regulation have combined to bring air travel into nearly everyone’s grasp. Watch this 1958 Pan Am commercial for its 707 transatlantic service. Back then, air travel was the province of the well-dressed elite, paying the modern equivalent of thousands of dollars to fly in style (cigarette and all!) across the ocean. The very practices that our zealous regulators (like New York governors or inane West Virginia senators) seek to undo are those that made air travel democratic. Public policy should reward the innovators that opened up American skies to a broad cross-section of society by continuing procompetitive policies.
And thanks to Smith for pointing out what needs to be pointed out again and again.