The airline industry is in deep trouble. The planes flown today were not manufactured in enough powerful Congressional districts and lobbyists prefer their own jets.
I drove 14 hours last weekend to visit family. I try hard, but I’ve never been a very good driver. I hated almost every moment. I like cruise control, but there are way too many other cars driving way too many different speeds to use it. I cursed as I drove. Not at the other drivers. I have too much empathy for that. No, I cursed that I had to drive. I cursed because there were no trains to get me there and back safely – and with a lower carbon footprint.
Sure, I could have flown, but mercy, do you pay a price for the privilege? The tickets, the tax, the advance planning, the trip to the airport, the x-rays and the strip search, the lifting, the lugging, the running, the waiting, the lines, the small pouches for liquids, the overhead bins, the numbness in my extremities, the shared air and shared germs, the stress of monitoring the bathrooms, being separate from my phone, remembering the safety instructions. No, I chose to drive it.
Like Robert Coram, I long for a time that once was, but for different reasons than in his parody. I long for a time when the airline industry was regulated, safe and allowed a profit. Run with the efficiency of old-time public utilities. Their employees were adequately compensated and brought union-ensured competence. When maintenance was absolute. When my ticket was currency that could be traded for another ticket that would get me there. When my greatest problem was the drunken businessman staggering with a long cigarette ash – okay, I don’t miss that and it did happen more than once on every flight.
Problem was, it didn’t last. Powerful people with powerful connections saw an opportunity to “deregulate.” Code for busting unions and opening up juicy opportunities for cronies. The promise of a better deal for all, through market-based regulation and highly leveraged mergers that benefited investments firms worked just as well for the airlines as it did for banks. The memory of being on Eastern’s last flight from Miami to Atlanta and shared tears of employees and passengers are still with me. A scene repeated for so many of the great airline companies, their devoted passengers, their shareholders and their hub cities.
Transportation has long been out of kilter in the US. We went along with the world’s model for a while. We were just too big, too greedy and shortsighted to notice when we got off track (intentional).
The rail industry was developed by private business and was very profitable. They lived in peace for a while with the car, the bus and later the airline industry. But then we messed with tax policy (1932). The Federal excise tax to create a “trust fund” to build roads – roads, of course, to benefit the real estate developer, to enlarge the property tax base, create suburbs and the service industry. A tax that increased over time, but could never used for another purpose. With unfair car-favored transportation tax policy in place, the car won. And in the next 80 years, we have laid a lot of asphalt. But almost no rail.
What’s this got to do with the airline industry? A lot, but it takes a leap of logical thinking. Cars are ideal for short trips when mass transportation is not available. Even slow trains are ideal for medium trips, a few hundred miles – if they would just go where you want to go when you want to go. Airlines travel at current prices, however, can only be efficient and profitable for longer distances.
The combination of huge spending for roads and no spending for rail meant that we tried to make airlines work for the missing link of medium trips. The trips when the cabin service is provided as you de-plane. The trips that create the congestion and delays. The trips that are popular at the local chamber of commerce, but the carbon-footprint brings tears to Al Gore’s eyes. The trips that are sold by the airlines below cost so they will connect for longer profitable flights. The trip that made me drive last weekend.
The way to save what’s left of the airline industry is by laying rail. Busting the trust fund and investing in mass transportation and high-speed passenger rail. Creating intermodal infrastructure to connect mass transportation to train to airports and back again. And by regulating transportation like the utilities they should be.
Do that, and there will be investor financing. Jobs. A stable stock price. Shorter security lines. Perhaps a return to more leg room. Happier passengers. And I can quit driving. We’ll all be better and safer for it.