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Posts Tagged ‘regulation’

Is "Straight Talk Express" now the regional affiliate of Straight Talk Air?

Is "Straight Talk Express" now the regional affiliate of Air McCain?

I haven’t had any luck getting the McCain campaign to fill me in on the details of his aviation plan (if he has one). His website has one mention of aviation, and it’s a throwaway press release on the air traffic control communications outage in August with a boilerplate call for reform in Washington. However, his twenty-six years in Washington and his chairmanship of the Senate committee that oversees aviation mean he has a pretty wide paper trail. Two of the most important issues on which he’s weighed in are air traffic control modernization (and how to fund it) and international aviation agreements.

John McCain has a track record of supporting market-based air traffic control reforms. In a 2001 interview with General Aviation News, which is full of revealing nuggets, he discussed a Reason Foundation report proposing a commercialized, nonprofit government corporation to provide air traffic control services (much like NAV CANADA). The interviewer was especially concerned about McCain’s support for user fees, the bete noire of the general-aviation community, and asked: “You have advocated ATC user fees in the past. Do you continue to support that approach?” McCain replied:

While there are a number of ideas about how to fund the aviation system, I have not yet come to a final conclusion about the best solution. The Commerce Committee will continue to examine different proposals and ideas, including a user-fee system. As I have often stated publicly, I am always open to new and fresh ideas on how to provide the proper funding to ensure a safe and efficient air-transportation system. The issue of user fees is closely linked to funding for the FAA, which is absolutely critical to the future of aviation in our country. The national air transportation system needs a predictable and reliable funding stream that is not subject to unnecessary budget pressures and gimmicks. A positive step in the right direction was the funding provided through the most recent FAA reauthorization bill, commonly known as AIR-21. But AIR-21 is not a permanent solution, and ensuring adequate funding for the long-term future of aviation remains a challenge.

While avoiding an endorsement of the Reason proposal, McCain did promise to include commercialization in the Commerce Committee deliberations on ATC: “However, the issue of ATC modernization is certainly an issue that the Commerce Committee will be looking into this year, and I expect ATC privatization will be included in the overall scope of the debate.”

User fees seem to appeal to McCain’s populist political persona and rhetoric. While acknowledging that user fees should not be structured to harm recreational users, he assails business jets’ use of the system: (more…)

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Interesting op-ed by Andy Kessler on Forbes.com yesterday:

Not to sound harsh, but Lehman Brothers reminds me of Pan Am Airlines. No one (well, beyond their employees) is going to miss them. There are plenty of others to take their place.

In the ’70s and ’80s, a deregulated airline industry grew beyond its means, was stuck with bad assets, prices dropped and consolidation became inevitable. Pan Am was an early innovator, flying seaplanes into previously unreachable Caribbean Islands. They eventually flew everywhere, competed with everyone, stretched their balance sheet so it was as inedible as the mystery meat they served on flights and then one day went . . . Poof!

Analogies only go so far, but Wall Street got caught in the same wringer. Deregulated since 1975, balance sheets grew and grew as money got thrown at the profitable business of trading stocks and bonds, investment banking and money management. In the cheap-money period of 2002 to 2007, Wall Street’s thirst for capital saw no limits.

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I’ve been digesting the UK Competition Commission’s provisional findings on BAA, and I’ll have more to say on the proposed remedies later. Here, in summary form, is what the Commission has found.

BAA was privatized with control of London’s three main airports in 1987 primarily to increase airport efficiency and provide a solid financial base for future expansion. It has not done this. “More than 20 years later, there is inadequate capacity, particularly runway capacity, in the South-East.” Furthermore, BAA’s airports are widely criticized by airlines, travelers, and other stakeholders. The Commission acknowledges that BAA is not entirely to blame — they do not oversee air traffic control, immigration and HM Customs, or airline operations. But BAA is not blameless. They are unresponsive to “the interests of airlines and passengers,” reports the Commission.

Is the lack of competition between BAA’s airports inevitable? Evidence suggests not. The Commission points out strong competition between Belfast’s airports, Birmingham and East Midlands, Cardiff and Bristol, and Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds Bradford. And BAA’s airports are easily substitutable, especially for leisure travelers — there is no natural monopoly in airport services in the Capital or Edinburgh-Glasgow as there is in, say, Aberdeen (where BAA ownership has been OK’d by the Commission).

BAA argues that competition is restricted not by common ownership but by capacity constraints. The Commission agrees, and it also fingers three other culprits in capacity constraints: the planning process, which slows up capacity development; government policy, which shapes future runway investments; and price regulation of airports. But this, the Commission argues, does not absolve BAA: “We acknowledge that to some extent BAA’s actions can be attributed to Government policy and/or the planning system and we have noted the interdependences between them. But in our view, as the owner and operator of the three major airports in the London area, BAA has to be regarded as responsible for their achievements and shortcomings.”

Because of capacity constraints, even if BAA were broken up today, there would be limited competition between airports in the short run. But the Competition found that “under separate ownership . . . we would expect the market structure to be sufficiently competitive so as to incentivize airport operators to overcome the current constraints on expanding capacity and to expand capacity to facilitate competition with one another, increasing competition in the longer term.” In other words, even though external forces impede airport expansion, BAA had little reason to seek out competitive expansion.

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One of the few cases where Adam Smith advocated public provision was that of large-scale infrastructure, and in particular transportation infrastructure, which he saw as a prerequisite for economic growth. His rationale was essentially an institutional one: private finance markets were neither large enough nor sophisticated enough to handle the scale and the long payback period associated with such investments. Ironically, in most developed countries, the modern world sees governments increasingly going to the private financial markets to fund infrastructure investments, either in their entirety or in some form of partnership, because the governments do not have the ability to raise the necessary capital. The sums involved are large. The World Bank estimated in 1995 that airport infrastructure alone would require $350 billion for upgrading and maintenance by 2010, and that was before the additional security systems now needed. Smith’s argument, however, may still have some validity regarding lower-income nations where capital markets are poorly developed, risk is high, and access to international funds can be very expensive.

— Kenneth Button, “Air Transportation Infrastructure in Developing Countries: Privatization and Deregulation,” in Aviation Infrastructure Performance: A Study in Comparative Political Economy, ed. Clifford Winston and Gines de Rus (Washington: Brookings, 2008).

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Transportation Secretary Mary Peters usually gets a bad rap in aviation policy circles. Even though her professional background is in highways, she ought to be better versed in aviation than this or this suggests. But I am very unimpressed with her latest initiative, announced Tuesday in Atlanta: a comprehensive national transportation policy. It is based on reducing gridlock and includes several market-oriented, incentive-shaping changes. I haven’t read the full plan yet, and I will soon engage with the aviation section, but the timing of this is ridiculous. Five months before the end of an administration is not the time to announce a “complete overhaul” of U.S. transportation policy. Her tone seems to believe she is working in 2001; she speaks of “unveiling” a Bush administration plan. Um, didn’t we have seven and a half years to do this? Peters herself has been secretary for almost two years; surely we could have seen a national plan before now.

The likelihood, therefore, of this transportation agenda being enacted is slim to none. Barack Obama’s transportation plan has some different objectives than the president’s, including more density and more federal-level involvement in planning. John McCain doesn’t seem to have much of a transportation policy apart from opposing porcine transportation earmarks. Either will likely diverge from the just-proposed plan. This plan, which I’m looking forward to reading, is years overdue and now arrives too late to be useful.

But now it’s time to pivot and praise Secretary Peters. Her transportation department has often advocated introducing market forces into the U.S. transportation infrastructure, and her July 22 op-ed in the New York Times defending the FAA’s peak pricing plan is good. She opens with a discussion of slot pricing that echoes what most economists say is wrong about landing fees: that they are weight-based. She also exposes the airlines’ inconsistency in opposing congestion pricing:

The airlines prefer the status quo, which is simply not working. Americans deserve better.

At a recent Congressional hearing, the head of the airlines’ primary lobbying organization, the Air Transport Association, asserted that pricing is not an effective mechanism for balancing supply and demand for landing slots. When lobbyists argue that basic economic principles do not apply to the industry they represent, a red flag should go up.

After all, the airlines themselves lower ticket prices to attract passengers when demand is low and then raise prices to maximize revenues when demand is high. What would happen if airlines were required by the government to charge the same ticket price for travel on Dec. 24 as they charge in the middle of September? There would either be rationing of extremely scarce seats on Dec. 24 or exorbitantly high prices for widely available seats in the middle of September. In either case, this inefficient outcome would damage the economy broadly and the aviation sector specifically.

Peters conveniently neglects to mention the FAA’s failure to make technological improvements that would have permitted airlines to meet demand, but she does explain part of the reason why: there’s a disconnect between the funding for those improvements and use of the system.

The argument championed by airline lobbyists and some of their Congressional supporters that “we just need more capacity and technology, not pricing” incorrectly assumes that these are competing concepts. But the main reason we have failed to add capacity and modernize our air traffic control system is that our approach to paying for aviation infrastructure completely disconnects the price of using capacity from its true costs and thus promotes overuse at popular airports and during popular flying times. . . . Independent economic experts of all political backgrounds agree that either auctions or congestion pricing is far preferable to the failed experiment we have now.

Congestion pricing is the most rational and efficient way to allocate congested and in-demand runways and airspace. This is part of Deregulation 2.0, the unfinished work of airline deregulation. We (successfully) deregulated the industry three decades ago; it’s now time to unleash competition in the aviation infrastructure sector. Peters agrees:

In the 1970s, many of the industry’s lobbyists took the position being espoused today — that basic economic principles could not be applied to commercial aviation, that competition would not work and that consumers would be harmed if airlines were given the freedom to design their own networks and to set prices based on market forces.

The lobbyists were wrong then. They are wrong today.

What can I say? When you’re right, you’re right.

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Representative James Oberstar

Representative James Oberstar

Yesterday, Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and three cosponsors introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure “arms-length” safety regulation of airlines by the FAA. The legislation comes as a result of the inspection debacle that took place this spring. During hearings on the subject, Oberstar repeatedly criticized what he called a “cozy” relationship between the FAA and the airlines it inspects.

For news coverage, see the Washington Post story. Now, let’s dig into the legislation, which you can find through THOMAS or the GPO.

The Aviation Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 (HR 6493) calls for: (more…)

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Over lunch today with Daniel Hall, we talked about the nation’s chronic underinvestment in infrastructure (and infrastructure maintenance). One of the key problems is what to do in the in-between time between our current system and our hypothetical, complete infrastructure Nirvana. The best way of allocating scarce transportation space — from highways to runways — is to charge users for the negative externalities caused by their presence at a given point in the transportation system. That is, we need to use congestion pricing.

A rule proposed in the winter by the FAA to permit a sort-of congestion pricing mechanism has just become a regulation “intended to provide greater flexibility to operators of congested airports to use landing fees to provide incentives to air carriers to use the airport at less congested times or to use alternate airports to meet regional air service needs.” So let’s look at the text: (more…)

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I’m going to resist the airline lobby’s link bait for their Stop Oil Speculation Now website (google it if you care), but the airline CEOs’ letter calling for passengers to lobby Congress for tighter regulation of oil futures “speculation” deserves some attention. The aviation blogosphere sees through this as the bad proposal it is (see Elliott, Snyder, PlaneBuzz, Upgrade, TJI). Indeed, economists from across the ideological spectrum — from Paul Krugman to WSJ op-ed writers — don’t blame “speculation” for the rapid run-up in oil prices. While some of the run-up looks bubblicious, for the most part, oil futures prices reflect estimates of existing and projected demand and existing and projected supply. As Craig Pirrong writes, “Futures and swap markets facilitate the efficient management of price risks, and speculators are an important part of that process. For instance, a producer of oil may want to lock in the price at which he sells his oil in the coming months in order to hedge against fluctuations in its price.” Another economist whose work I follow recently wrote, “Financial markets are driving today’s prices to match expectations of tomorrow’s values.” Speculators are doing the work of price discovery.

And for crying out loud, what is with the airlines’ complaint about “speculators who trade oil on paper with no intention of ever taking delivery”? Do they really want only those who will personally use oil to buy it? What if I’m a sharp, entrepreneurial guy who can make money buying and selling oil? (I’m not.) Why should the government limit my ability to “truck and barter” in a commodity that’s otherwise freely traded? Instead of making oil cheaper, it would restrict the full measure of price information a functioning market can provide.

The challenge of leadership is running a business in hard times as well as good. As Brookings Institution economist Clifford Winston told me recently, airline profitably depends more on the handling of “shocks” than on wringing out efficiencies. The airlines’ proposal is a Band-Aid, a substitute for actually handling the shock of rising costs.

The airline CEOs call the oil market “over-heated.” What’s really over-heated is the rhetoric and reasoning of their proposal.

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Sorry for the light posting around here. I’ve been working on some major writing projects that will appear over the next few months. In the course of one of them, I had occasion to chat with Alfred Kahn, the chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board in the late ’70s and the “father of airline deregulation” (although when deregulation’s record was questioned he would later joke that he wanted a paternity test). Here are a few highlights from our conversation.

Looking back, was airline deregulation a good idea? “It clearly, definitely was,” Kahn said, “even though circumstances have now changed abruptly and the response of the market to changed circumstances . . . are in a sense wiping out henceforward many of the benefits that flowed during the past 30 years.”

Why was it so successful? The answer, he said, is that it “sparked an enormous increase in competition and air travel affordable to people from a much wider spectrum of income than before . . . made possible by filling seats in the previous decade that had gone empty.” Furthermore, he added, airlines are providing the service demanded: “I don’t see any evidence even now that the industry is failing to provide service that is economically viable.”

Notwithstanding the high fuel costs that many analysts say will drive most airlines into bankruptcy and force an industry transformation, Kahn insists that introducing competition into the industry was a good thing to do. “That’s no reason for denying the benefits from competition.” There is nothing inconsistent to say that there was a $5-10 billion per year benefit to consumers and that today’s energy situation may be reversing those benefits. Furthermore, changes the airlines made in the past thirty years due to competitive pressures may help them in today’s climate: “The increase in competition clearly forced them to improve their productivity; I don’t see that those [gains] are being wiped out.” All industries are to some extent exposed to losses due to high energy prices, Kahn said, so “nor would it be desirable for [airlines] to be sheltered from the change in our energy situation.” (more…)

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Matthew Swibel has a great story in the current issue of Forbes on another flaw of the very flawed Essential Air Service. The Department of Transportation sets subsidies for flights to each community at a certain level, but with costs rising so precipitously, some airlines can’t make a profit even with a subsidy. What can they do? According to Swibel, Mesaba (an airline mentioned in the article that provides EAS in the upper midwest) “can’t stop flying without a nod from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is under orders from Congress to keep carriers serving 106 low-density markets. For Mesaba to get out of its two-year contract, it must give dot 90 days’ notice and hope another airline comes along to take over the route (or it can apply for a bigger subsidy). Otherwise the bureaucrats can keep Mesaba flying indefinitely under its locked subsidy.”

Congress has designed a system that makes it difficult or impossible for airlines to continuously offer the service that the program mandates.

Hijacked [Forbes]

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