Blame Islamist terrorists and, yes, government airline deregulation for United Airlines‘ thuggish and bloody assault on a passenger on April 10. (Let the record show that for a decade I editorialized for deregulation and still think, within rational limits – I want a Food and Drug Administration — the freer the markets the better for consumers and society in general.)
The third cause of United’s outlandishly self-destructive behavior may be that large institutional investors like BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street, PRIMECAP and, yes, Warren Buffet bought big stakes in the four remaining major airlines.
Expect heated debate among economists and pinheads (sometimes one in the same) about whether a small group of giant investors controls airfares and the number of seats available.
The United incident is barely believable but for the video record and witness accounts.
“United going to be punished badly by reputation and loss of customers,” said Richard Epstein, a Heartland Institute fellow and University of Chicago economist, said in an interview as he was boarding a flight Thursday.
But United’s treatment of Dr. David Dao is also just an extreme example of how airlines in general too often treat customers in what should be the golden age of airline deregulation.
Most Americans dread enduring their next airport cattle-call. They cringe at the thought of having to fly on often decrepit, ill-maintained aircraft. They gnash teeth hearing up to face bullying, rude and ill-kempt cabin attendants. These cabin police issue rude commands that passengers dare not question for fear of being ejected or bound, gagged and awaiting arrest on landing.
Things weren’t always like this. There was a time in America when what United did to its passenger would have been unimaginable. Remember when it was such a joy to fly on Pan American World Airways, Transcontinental World Airways, Continental Airlines, U.S. Airways, Northwest Airlines as well as American, United, Delta and Southwest? All but the last four went bankrupt or got absorbed as deregulated airlines started to compete by lowering fares. The bigger, better-managed airlines drove the rest into the ground, so to speak.
Enough customers cared more about low fares than about the quality of in-flight meals, crew dress and demeanor and whether cabin interiors were shipshape to make fares more important than ambiance.
The marketplace seemed unable to provide both lower fares and quality experience – “economy plus” and “business class” didn’t — and still don’t cut it (being treated like cattle in a seat with slightly more leg room is not the answer I’d hoped the free market would come up with).
Then came Middle East wars that made Islamists more acutely aware of the U.S. Terrorism followed. Already overcrowded airports (Thank deregulated low fares) became nightmares as Great Protector Government created long lines of passengers with carry-on luggage, both of which would face being unceremoniously scanned, pawed and otherwise examined –never mind that repeated tests showed almost anything short of a Howitzer could escape TSA detection.
We all want a bit of nice middle American cleanliness and politeness in air travel, from terminal to aircraft to terminal. We’re not getting it. Do we want to go back to the days of government regulation in order to experience once again that elegant commercial flying experience of yore?
Even if we were willing to trade higher fares for pleasanter flying, it probably wouldn’t happen. Politics would stand in the way. So would government competence, which has steadily waned since those grand old days of that greatest monopoly ever, Ma Bell aka American Telephone & Telegraph.
Mr. Epstein, the Chicago economist, doesn’t see it in the cards.
So maybe we can’t go home again –unless there’s another aviation entrepreneur/economist out here with a better idea.
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