Saving the airline industry

obama-high-speed-rail-plansThe 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.

7 thoughts on “Saving the airline industry

  1. Keith Graham

    I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy some great train trips — in other countries and on other continents — but the state of passenger train service in this country is really a disgrace, and the lack of political leadership on this issue is really pretty stunning, when so many studies are available showing that train service can be cost effective and more environmentally friendly than other alternatives, especially for mid-level distances. For instance, I would love to be able to take a train from Atlanta to Athens or from Atlanta to the Georgia coast. I’d love to see this issue rise up on the list of concerns that people care about, and for inspiration I’d suggest listening to this song, which could be an anthem for people who care about this issue — “Daddy, What’s a Train?” by Utah Phillips:

  2. Mary Civille

    Like Keith I’ve enjoyed great train trips elsewhere, but also in this country — up and down the California coast in the mid 50s. Nothing could beat the power of that big orange Union Pacific diesel. And sleeping in a Pullman berth! Even the long trips home from college on the B&O mail train through West Virginia were exciting. And what could compete with the German trains that whisked me twice a week from Frankfurt to Wiesbaden at rush hour in less than 30 minutes in the 60s? Nothing beats trains for efficiency, comfort and a smaller carbon footprint per mile traveled. Bring train travel back, please.

  3. Lindy Lou

    Here here!!! Great piece Lee. Can we start a “bring back the train” movement, (much preferred to “bringing back the stewardesses”). I lived in England for three years and the thing I miss the very most is the train system. Well-said about the “medium” trip distinction, and I had not thought about it in that way. It was wonderful to live in a village on a train line and be in London in 30 minutes without being stalled in traffic, surrounded by fumes and spending a fortune (gas in the UK was about $6 a gallon at that time). But, even better were the “medium” trips to places like Edinburgh. There is nothing quite like watching the countryside out the window of the Royal Scotsman, relaxing with friends without the stress of traffic. I took that same trip by car, and by plane, and there was absolutlely no comparison.
    Here in the states, I have often taken the train from Philly to NYC. Again, what a breeze!! PLEASE, PLEASE
    someone, somewhere lay some rails around this part of the country.

  4. Meg Gerrish

    Last year we took Amtrak from Miami to Boston (and back), a large travel portion of a trip to Maine. While I could make complaints about this and that, I could not complain about the attentive service from the porters, the friendly atmosphere generated by passengers and employees alike, the assistance and stories offered by “rail regulars,” the sense that we had traveled back in time to a place that would surely benefit our future. “Willoughby. Next stop, Willoughby.”

    It was a traveling pleasure, particularly when compared to the anxiety induced by air travel. Of course it took longer to arrive at our destination. But we were relaxed upon arrival, we’d met nice people, we’d enjoyed (medium quality) dining, quality time together and a couple of lovely beverages.

    Sign me up to argue that train service is a place where some of the country’s infrastructure money should be invested.

  5. Inego Montoya

    Great article. A national high-speed passenger train network has been LONG overdue. It’d be cheaper, less hassles, and better for the environment. Shame the auto and oil industries own most of our politicians (or is it the other way around these days?).

  6. Martin O'Hara

    Good points, well made Lee.

    As regular English visitors to the USA, my family and I have been amazed at the relative lack of passenger rail service in the States.

    We would happily use a rail system to travel from an airline hub such as Atlanta to other southern regional centres, but the logistics make it impossible or impracticable.

    I’m sure that improved rail services are an important part of the energy / environmental solution.

  7. Hala Moddelmog

    Please send this article to Peter Orzag or any of the other brainiacs in the Obama administration who are trying to save us from ourselves with efficient economic strategies. Not to mention that train travel is wonderful and you can process your emails…


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