Last week the New York Times approached me about contributing to its ongoing Room for Debate feature for the third time. (First time, second time.) The point up for debate: Do Airlines Need to Be Re-Regulated? Keep in mind we’re not talking about safety regulation here. This is commercial regulation, and as long-time readers know, I’m against it. But I like this format because it allows several contributors to put up their thoughts in a concise format.
This time around, there were six contributors. Holly Hegeman from PlaneBusiness and the Aviation Queen herself Benét Wilson had feelings similar to mine. As for those who think re-regulation is the answer, I’m pretty sure you can guess two of the three contributors without giving it a second thought. Yep, Charlie Leocha and Chris Elliott led the charge along with Sara Nelson from the Association of Flight Attendants (who focused on the labor aspect).
I’m reprinting my piece here so we can get a discussion going. Please go to The New York Times Room for Debate page to read the rest of the submissions. Then come on back and hit the comments section.
Every time an airline does something that people don’t like, there are always calls to re-regulate the industry. As the refrain goes, “Airlines are awful now. Let’s bring back the good old days!” The problem with that statement is two-fold. First, the old days weren’t so good. Second, the airlines actually aren’t awful at all these days.
I know, you’re probably thinking about the “old days” when everyone was smiling, well-dressed, and eating hand-carved chateaubriand in the sky. You know why it was like that? Because tickets cost a fortune. The airlines were regulated and that meant the government decided where each airline could fly and how much they could charge.
Fast forward to today and it’s completely different. Fares are far less and schedules far more convenient. In fact, since 1979, shortly after the airlines were deregulated, fares have dropped nearly 30 percent (adjusted for inflation) INCLUDING bag and change fees.
With fares so much cheaper, you’d expect the product to have gotten a lot worse. Sure, the meals aren’t what they used to be, at least not in coach. But back then the meal was the only thing distracting travelers from a very long and exhausting journey. Today we have, in many cases, in-seat or streaming video, live television, power outlets, and WiFi to pass the time.
After years of struggling through competitive wars and external shocks, the airlines have now consolidated to a point where they can really invest in the product. That means a better onboard experience, including entertainment, WiFi, food and drinks, baggage handling, and performance. Airlines have been falling over each other trying to claim the title for best operational performance, even putting out guarantees for corporate customers. Department of Transportation statistics through March of this year show more than 82 percent of flights arriving on time, a near record performance.
Are there more seats on airplanes and less legroom to be had? Yes, but only because airlines are responding to people’s desire for cheap fares. By adding more seats, airlines can push fares down. At the same time, airlines are giving us something we haven’t had before: true choice. For those who want extra legroom, they can pay for it (and likely still pay less than they did for regular coach in 1979). Even the cost of first class has decreased. But for those who value price above all, times have never been better.
The worst part of the travel experience today is the part that’s the most heavily-regulated; in fact, it’s run by the government itself. The security experience is awful, but everything else is pretty remarkable. A re-regulated industry would only make things worse.