"Ask Yourself Why Government Doesn't Start Helping to Fix This Mess"

In this weekend in The Washington Post, David Ignatius deplores the effects of airline deregulation. Among them:

In the years since deregulation, nearly 200 airlines have come and gone. These inadequately financed carriers — whose principal goal has often seemed to be merely to exist long enough to reap the rewards of an initial public offering — have consistently cut prices to attract passengers.

But this is exactly how we know that, as a general matter, airline deregulation has worked pretty well. Nowhere is Schumpeter's line about the perennial gale of creative destruction more relevant (or more metaphorically apt) than in the airline industry. Challengers arise, competition brings down prices and encourages innovation in services, and the losers have to sell their toys to the winners and go home.

The airline industry is far from a perfect market, of course. And even if it were, traveling would still be annoying, inconvenient, and subject to the vagaries of bad weather, mechanical malfunctions, and morons trying to jam an elephant into the overhead bin. Europe has been whupping us lately in the sustained deregulation stakes.

But Ignatius gives away the game in his own article:

The cost of domestic travel has gone up just 52 percent since 1978, compared with a 218 percent increase in the consumer price index. But otherwise, the U.S. industry has been a total loser.

Yep, other than the fact that prices for flights remain almost magically, absurdly low--low enough, in fact, for the number of American flying the friendly skies to have doubled in the 20 years after deregulation went into effect --no good has come of deregulation. Nope, none at all. After all, workers are "embittered." Air travel is "a staple of late night comedy." Dear god, no!

Ignatius instructs us to "ask yourself why government doesn't start helping to fix this mess." But that's the wrong question. There are problems with American air travel, but bipartisan action from Congress--the holiest of grails for the Washington Post opinion writer, doesn't exactly have a flawless record of efficient on point solutions, either.

Go buy a cheap ticket somewhere fun at expedia.com and then don't forget to enjoy a sample from the enormous archive of news articles from the airlines-are-going-to-hell-in-an-handbasket-because-of-evil-corporations genre. Like this one ("The numbers for 1986 suggest that the nation's airlines are flying closer than ever to disaster, but by some combination of wit and luck are emerging with an improving safety record") or this one from 2002 ("this is shaping up to be a year for passengers to write their travel plans down in pencil, not ink.")

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  • ||

    What is Eurpose?

  • Guy Montag||

    K M-W,

    Great post, but you have left the door open for that whiner who does not like the quality he gets for the price of a coach ticket.

    Does not matter that First Class is frequently available, charter service is available, etc. There is a total whiner on this board who had hundreds of comments at the ready to support Socialized air travel.

    Countdown begins now . . .

  • ||

    What is Eurpose?

    It's like Glamor Shots, but for fat guys.

  • ||

    Funny, every time I hear a comedian mocking air travel, they either go after airport security or those ridiculous pre-flight announcements. I.e., the things that annoy us most are the direct result of gov't regulation.

  • Nigel Watt||

    But the corporations sit in their corporation buildings and are all corporation-y...

  • ||

    You expect us to believe that the Washington Post is involved in a conspiracy to praise bipartisian actions? Please, your making a mockery of yourself; I guess we are supposed to think that Donald Graham goes to Bilderberg meetings every year as well? get serious Reason the government does need to fix the horrible mess we call the "airline industry"!

  • ||

    Government interference with my ability to get on a plane is the primary reason I avoid air travel.

  • ||

    The Post itself ran a similar piece, complaining about the airlines "nickel and diming us" by charging for things that actually cost money. The Post folks miss the good old days when air travel was expensive, airlines competed on extras, and not many people traveled by plane. Democracy! It's so ... common!

  • matt||

    A Serious Thinker's education appears to have been skewed towards philosophy at the expense of grammar.

  • ||

    After RTFA, I still have a hard time figuring out what exactly the problem is. This is an opinion piece that could be mercilessly fisked. Take this nugget:

    Sharply rising jet fuel costs, the airlines' latest catastrophe, have prompted new desperation measures, such as charging for checked luggage. That's a stunningly bad idea because it will encourage customers to bring ever-larger carry-on bags, making flight attendants even crankier and travel more unpleasant.



    No, dumbass. (Most) airlines have a 50 lb. bag limit, plus a strict dimensional limit. You aren't going to see passengers checking in car sized luggage, because it is simply not allowed (without paying a fee).

  • Generic Comedian||

    What's the deal with the Black Box on airplanes?

    If they're so indestructible, why not make the whole plane out of Black Boxes?

  • ||

    they are not indestructable...none of them were found from 9/11.

  • ||

    It's like Glamor Shots, but for fat guys.

    Must be a cosmotarian thing...

  • ||

    Gabe, the UA 93 one was found.

  • Bingo||

    they are not indestructable...none of them were found from 9/11.



    Well, things don't just disappear. Maybe there were no airplanes. Was anyone here that actually saw it? It's all a hoax, and a controlled detonation. Maybe the WTC never existed, does anyone here really know it wasn't just an elaborate model?

  • ||

    Scheduled to leave last Saturday afternoon 5:15, JetBlue cancelled flight, which I find out upon arrival at JFK (perfectly blue skies, no reason for cancellation given). Scramble to get the last seat available on the 7:15PM Delta flight. The flight is required to have extra fuel on board due to the now impending weather, so suitcases are removed from the plane to adjust the weight. What a sinking feeling to see your suitcase be removed from the belly of the jet and then driven elsewhere. Lightning strikes in the area, so the ramp is shut down. They reopen it briefly about 20 minutes later and we push back and get in line to depart. Torrential rains and lightning ensue. We are ~60th for departure. It storms real good for the next 4 hours, at which time they decide to cancel the flight. Meanwhile I have new travel arrangements for Sunday (there were just 3 seats left on JetBlue 12:30 PM flight) thanks to my wife's efforts booking me via the internet. Back to the gate at 12:45AM. Take the train back to home and arrive at 3 AM. 13 hours, 80 miles roundtrip, completely wasted day. Then, I'm up at 7:30 Sunday to make train to plane connections. Get to JFK and inquire about luggage. Delta will deliver in Raleigh. They are unsure when. I arrive at in NC late afternoon. I am reunited with my luggage at 11:30PM Sunday.

    New York just recently passed a passenger's bill of rights. Because of that, I was given 2 8oz. bottles of water and a package of 2 cookies to help me endure the travel agony. Better than nothing, but all things considered, I'm opening the radius for train travel up beyond the self-imposed NY to WASH limit.

  • ||

    Sharply rising jet fuel costs, the airlines' latest catastrophe, have prompted new desperation measures, such as charging for checked luggage. That's a stunningly bad idea because it will encourage customers to bring ever-larger carry-on bags, making flight attendants even crankier and travel more unpleasant.

    What a moron. Obviously he hasn't flown enough to know that people *already* bring absurdly large carry-on bags that they're not allowed to bring, and end up having to check them at the gate. There may be an increase in this, but the end result will still be a smaller cargo load for the plane and people traveling with less stuff that they don't actually need.

  • Taktix&#174||

    Clearly the government took the black boxes from ground zero because they contained evidence that Bush and Cheney were flying the planes and Rumsfield wired the towers with explosives.

    The proof is there, I mean, why didn't we find the black boxes if they weren't trying to cover it up?

    Christine Smith 2012

  • ||

    To expand on the "charging for checked luggage" bit, it also doesn't penalize people who are only going for short trips. I'd be ticked off if I were only going somewhere for the weekend and the airlines saw it fitting to charge everybody $20 more on the ticket so that some people could bring a checked bag for "free" if they wanted to.

  • TallDave||

    Challengers arise, competition brings down prices and encourages innovation in services, and the losers have to sell their toys to the winners and go home.

    What? Losers? What about their self-esteem? Where's your compassion?

    Government has a responsiblity to make sure everyone is a winner.

  • Kolohe||

    forestall capital spending for new, more efficient planes.

    Unmittigated poppycock.

  • TallDave||

    "Ask yourself why government doesn't start helping to fix this mess."

    What a wonderful, magical phrase.

  • ||

    As Americans, we have this great love affair with "pay one price, consume all you want (or up to a large amount)" types of services. Examples:
    1. Buffets
    2. Cell phone plans
    3. Airline tickets (up until recently) (up to 2 bags, meal, snacks, beverages, etc.)
    4. Amusement parks
    ...

    The thing is - we hate paying a la carte. We'd rather pay for something we're not going to use and have it available to us in the event that we wanted it than we would pay for something at the time the service is delivered. Pay for snacks and beverages on a plane? Absurd! Tack on $10 to the ticket price to cover complimentary snacks and beverages? OK.

  • ||

    Oh, and where are my manners?

    Nice find, KMW, and nice review.

  • ||

    Better than nothing, but all things considered, I'm opening the radius for train travel up beyond the self-imposed NY to WASH limit.

    Last time I rode the Lakeshore Limited from NYS to Chicago, I was seated near the bathroom, whose door was broken, so it kept sliding open and shut with a thud all night long. Also the sink was clogged, so there was scummy water flying out through the door when it was open as the train rocked from left to right constantly. When I informed one of the Amtrak attendants about this, she told me they knew about it and there was nothing they could do so deal with it.

    I'd take the cookies and run if I were you.

  • TallDave||

    "Ask yourself why government doesn't start helping to fix this mess."

    I am going to make a banner saying this and hang it up at work.

  • ||

    Reinmoose,

    It arises due to economies of scale, and I doubt it's just Americans.

  • ||

    Reinmoose said:

    The thing is - we hate paying a la carte.



    Except, apparently, when it comes to cable TV. We want it all, except when we don't.

  • ||

    It arises due to economies of scale, and I doubt it's just Americans.

    I'm just pointing out who I've observed it for. And I'm not sure I know what you mean by "it arises due to economies of scale." I understand from a supplier side that subscriptions are great, but this is not the same thing as saying that consumers prefer this method of payment and service delivery.

  • ||

    Except, apparently, when it comes to cable TV. We want it all, except when we don't.

    Cable is a bit of a mixed bag. We want the channels that we want and not all the ones we don't, but we want to be able to watch the channels we want for an unlimited amount of time.

    Remember when you could buy internet in "hours?" Do you think anyone would even consider doing that anymore, even if it would be cost-beneficial for them to do so?

  • ||

    Reinmoose,

    The amount that airlines would charge for a la carte services would be larger than the amount they have to add to the ticket price to include the service for everyone.

    So if 80% of the customers want it, it makes sense for them to have it included rather than a la carte.

  • Kolohe||

    Reinmoose said:
    The thing is - we hate paying a la carte.
    Except, apparently, when it comes to cable TV. We want it all, except when we don't.


    My take it's not the extra fee per se (the 'upsell' has a long and glorious history) but the fact you got to break out your wallet *after* you paid your fare. If you paid the check baggage fee or a meal fee at the time of purchase, you'd get a lot less flack.

    With the cable TV example, imagine if every chanel was pay-per-view. There would be such a strum and drang. And on top of that, imagine if you had to put in quarters into your cable box like a pay phone. (Gen y'ers ask your parents what a pay phone is)

    (trivia question answer: the only veto that was ever overturned in the Bush 1 admin was the re-regulation of cable TV rates)

  • ||

    The amount that airlines would charge for a la carte services would be larger than the amount they have to add to the ticket price to include the service for everyone.

    So if 80% of the customers want it, it makes sense for them to have it included rather than a la carte.


    Let me put this a different way - - - I'm talking about consumer preferences, not why a company would offer something in their service package.

  • ||

    Chris P -
    Do you think that the airlines switched to charging for checked luggage despite the fact that it was merely *cheaper* to just let everyone bring whatever-t.f. they wanted? That doesn't make sense, and has nothing to do with economies of scale.

  • ||

    I don't mean for that last comment to sound like I actually think it's cheaper for them to let everyone bring checked bags - but that that assertion would be stupid.

  • Hat Trick||

    C:\Pot> : The amount that airlines would charge for a la carte services would be larger than the amount they have to add to the ticket price to include the service for everyone.

    That may be true, but not necessarily the point. Take consumables, as an example (soda, snacks, etc). The marginal expense associated with providing those has likely gone up exponentially along with the rise in fuel prices. If the airlines can discourage consumption of 100 cans of coke, they likely save more fuel by not having to transport 1200 oz.

  • ||

    "Ask yourself why government doesn't start helping to fix this mess."

    I did that David. All I could come up with as an answer is that you're a pinhead.

    I hope Krauthammer runs you over with his wheelchair.

  • ||

    The commercial passenger airline industry is hardly an example of the free market in action. It remains one of the most heavily regulated industries. People forget that the "deregulation" applies only to ticket prices.

    Why are so many here so quick to defend the airlines? By most accounts, the airlines provide abysmal servie. Does anybody contest that? Let's start with the attitude. Not exactly driven by a committment to customer service excellence. Efficiency? Are you kidding me? How about the way that the airlines have treated their employees? Particularly the bankruptcy gambit to rid themselves of their pension obligations. Shedding the pension obligations was, in effect, a subsidy.

    Vision? Innovation? What has the industry done to improve the basic jet flying experience in the last 50 years? What has the industry done to shield itself from the vagaries of the oil market?

    Let them fail.

  • Virgil||

    How come posters who use handles like "Serious Thinker," "Real Reason," or something else implying their powerful observational and critical thinking skills are pretty much uniformly dipshits?

  • ||

    What has the industry done to improve the basic jet flying experience in the last 50 years?

    They've lowered the price tremendously, especially considering how much more expensive fuel is now than in 1958. Also, planes are much quieter and safer now than they were.

  • ||

    Guess what industry was opposed to the deregulation of commercial jet passenger ticket pricing?

  • ||

    Reinmoose,

    I'll tip my hat to Hat Trick, he sums up my position. But in any case, there are many areas where US Americans prefer ala carte. Movie theaters would be in even more trouble if they raised ticket prices from $9 to $15 but included popcorn, soda, and candy in the higher price, pissing off Scotsmen like myself who eat and drink before and after the movie, not during, or in more desperate circumstances stuff a pack of Rolos in our underwear on the way in.

  • Trolly Mctrollerson||

    stuff a pack of Rolos in our underwear on the way in.

    Is that how a Pollack convinces his girlfriend he's black?

  • ||

    C Pot-

    Do you think that air travel is a more enjoyable experience than it was in 1958? What has the industry done, as a whole, to make the experience more enjoyable?

    "They" were against price deregulation. "They" have not pushed for com plete deregulation of the industry and "they" would prefer the gov to reregulate fare prices.

    I'll grant you that typical (though not all) fares, adjusted for inflation, are much more affordable to the average Guiseppe today than they were in 1958.

    Safety? What is the basis of your claim that the planes are safer today? There are hundreds of planes in service today that are at least 25-30 years old. I am not claiming to be an expert on the relative safety records of jets as measured by their production date-but who can honestly say that the jet flying experience is BETTER today?

  • ||

    Existential complaining about airline travel is yet another example of overlooking a first-order benefit to focus on a second-order inconvenience.

    Modern marketing and pricing allows airplanes to fly essentially full essentially all the time. The first-order benefit is that more people can fly for less money. The second-order inconvenience is that everyone's flight is more crowded. The benefit amounts to multiple hundreds of dollars per person. The inconvenience is something some people might pay $20 to avoid. The benefits outweigh the costs by an order of magnitude.

    And if you really want to avoid the inconvenience, you are welcome to pay $800 or so to ride in business class. It'll just make flying even cheaper for everyone else.

  • LLStone||

    liberty mike,
    I don't know if you've traveled long haul or international lately but the personal tv with movies and music and games is a huge plus from what they had 30 years ago.

  • LLStone||

    I love the lower prices, I just wish that they airlines would get together to make thier policies a little more uniform and less confusing. That's my biggest complaint.

  • ||

    I wouldn't mind being charged for a soda or booze if I could bring my own beverages on the flight. However, TSA put the kibbosh on that because of some stupid Brits.

  • ||

    Mike P-

    Not so fast. The values that you assign to benefits are subjective. You are choosing to value the benefit of more people being able to fly at a lower cost over the industry's pathetic record at providing a reliable service without causing inconveniences like full flights, reduced options (the airlines have dramatically reduced the number of flights and have cut-off service altogether to some cities), overbooking(funny how the modern marketing and pricing employed by the industry has worked so well), cancelled flights without notice, delays, the 16 hour waits on the runway, the shoddy customer service and let's not forget the wonderful job that the airlines do with our luggage. My luggage has only been lost 7 times.

    On a purely empirical basis, query the aggregate cost to the flying public for all of the f..ups caused by the airlines failure to provide "second order" benefits?

  • MJ||

    "Do you think that air travel is a more enjoyable experience than it was in 1958?"

    In the fifties air travel was more of an expensive luxury form of transportation and the frills offered reflected that, however the customer base was relatively small. Today, the customer base is large, air travel common, the price of airfares comparatively cheap, and the frills are being eliminated. You can have low fares and lots of people traveling the skies, or you can have all the bells and whistles and air travel regulated to the wealthy, you cannot have both.

  • ||

    The values that you assign to benefits are subjective.

    Yes. Can you suggest an alternative?

    You are choosing to value the benefit of more people being able to fly at a lower cost over the industry's pathetic record at providing a reliable service without causing inconveniences...

    Yes. If an airline can get 20 more people on an airplane at $400 apiece, it is providing at least $8000 of extra value. Is it costing the other 120 people on board $8000 in total by doing so? I doubt it. I doubt it is even close.

    I do concur that airlines don't do a great job in customer service for their nonpremium passengers. There is a simple solution: They can provide service insurance. Don't want to get bumped in an overbooking situation? $50. Want a $500 payoff if your bag goes missing or if your flight is more than 2 hours late? $50.

    In other words, airlines can choose to make passengers premium clients on a flight per flight basis. I'd pay if the flight were important enough. I wouldn't if it weren't.

    Obligatory disclaimer: Airline operations are too regulated. Airlines are too protected from competition. Airlines should be allowed to fail and merge. Foreign airlines and investors should be allowed to compete and invest in the US. Yadda. Yadda.

  • Guy Montag||

    That's a stunningly bad idea because it will encourage customers to bring ever-larger carry-on bags, making flight attendants even crankier and travel more unpleasant.

    Stupid newspaper person, they are cranky because they thought they were going to be models but they ended up being waitresses and waiters.

  • Guy Montag||

    Sounds like a writer and a commentator or two are wishing for the days when only the "right people" could afford an airplane ticket.

    Kick it up to charter, elitists, and leave the proles alone please.

  • Windypundit||

    Airlines provide crappy service. Everyone knows it. And everyone seems to like it that way. From 1975 to 2005, US commercial travel (in passenger-miles) has quadrupled.

    David Ignatius is just repeating Bob Crandall's talking points, which I happen to have blogged about a couple of months ago.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    So his complaint is that airline tickets are too affordable.

    I wonder if he said the same thing about gas prices during the 1980's and 1990's.

  • ||

    I'm opening the radius for train travel up beyond the self-imposed NY to WASH limit.

    Hahaha, trains and planes are so twentieth-century. Libertarian hipsters use "chinatown buses" to get around.

  • robc||

    Just did some fractional jet pricing. It looks like it works out to about $8k per flight hour. So, lets say you have a 3 hour flight for 6 execs. That is about $4k each. I dont know what the present dollar value of a 1958 first class ticket is, but I bet it is at least that much and the modern small jet is much nicer to fly in.

    My cousin's husband is a fractional jet pilot - they are hard to land with only 1 wing.

  • robc||

    Doing some more googling I have found much cheaper fractional jet prices than I mentioned above, making the point even stronger. One under 2k per hour.

  • Last Poster Standing||

    My cousin's husband is a fractional jet pilot - they are hard to land with only 1 wing.

    The void left by Carlin's death is, alas, still unfilled.

  • Fluffy||

    On a purely empirical basis, query the aggregate cost to the flying public for all of the f..ups caused by the airlines failure to provide "second order" benefits?

    One way we know is the fact that the public refrains from paying to upgrade to business class or first class in great numbers.

    Another way we know is because [as ROBC points out] an entire industry exists to allow people near-total control over their flying experience, and people continue to choose to fly coach instead.

    We therefore know, objectively, that the inconveniences of commercial airline travel have a dollar value that is lower than the delta in cost between basic coach service and these premium services.

  • ||

    was eurpose defined?

  • ||

    MikeP

    Disregarding your (obvious) larger point, do you really think you can defend this statement:

    "The inconvenience (that everyone's flight is more crowded) is something some people might pay $20 to avoid."

    I belive that the majority of passengers would pay more than $20. But, if you're correct that only "SOME" passengers "MIGHT" pay $20, then we can expect that the average passenger would not pay $20. Betcha a six-pack that the average AA customer (or Delta, whatever) would pay more than $20 to avoid all crowded flights and be guaranteed an uncrowded flight.

    I'll spot you five points. I believe the the average American jet passenger would pay in excess of $26 per flight to avoid crowds. I would. My hunch is: experimentz would yeild a number greater than $29! There's a business right now selling the ability to avoid crowds at security for, what, $125 per year -- I heard they are sold out. That's just security - not seating on 3 hour flights.

  • robc||

    Tommy_Grand,

    I dont know the typical price difference, but considering the crowding on Southwest flights, lots of people are willing to put up with crowds (and festival seating). I know, even at the same price, for a reasonably short flight (under 2 hours), I will take a crowded SWA flight over a half-empty Delta flight.

  • ||

    Tommy_Grand,

    $20 for some people may be low. I could go with the $30 average that you suggest. It would be a fun experiment. Note that in my example above, the value to the marginal fliers averages $67 across the inconvenienced fliers -- and that is for 20 marginal fliers added to 120, which means that most of the 120 don't have an empty seat next to them even before the 20 show up.

    In my own case, I recall from the days when American had a greater distance between rows that I was willing to spend $50 more to fly them instead of another airline. But that clearly wasn't a majority position since American gave up on that and reverted to everyone else's crowded row pitch.

    If I recall correctly, United offers (still?) economy-plus for $50. I haven't availed myself of that when given the opportunity.

  • Geotpf||

    Ignoring the groping by the TSA people, you can pay extra for better service on an airline. It's called first class. Most people choose not to.

  • economist||

    This David Ignatius guy sounds like a little bitch.

  • ||

    Part of the problem is that airlines undercharge the economy-class passengers and make up for it by gouging the business and first-class passengers.

    I'm not against any of the FAA regulations--if you look into the history of them, almost every single one of them came into existence through some fatal accident. They are literally written in blood. We discovered through a lot of fatal trial and experiment the "etiquette" of flying--which is what all the FAA regulations are. And don't underestimate the risk of avionic flight. Hard to believe that two large airplanes with the entire airspace of the US to fly around in, could fly into each other, right...?

  • ||

    Part of the problem is that airlines undercharge the economy-class passengers and make up for it by gouging the business and first-class passengers.

    And the rest of the problem is that the economy-class passengers won't fly for much more, but by flying at all they allow the prices for the business and first-class passengers to be lower than otherwise.

    Consider an airplane with two seats and two types of passenger. The airplane costs $1000 to fly; the business passenger finds it worth $900 to take the flight while the leisure passenger finds it only worth $200 to take the flight. Unless the airplane carries at least one business traveler, the flight does not make money. By "undercharging" the leisure traveler, the airline can "gouge" the business traveler $100 less. If the airline doesn't "undercharge" the leisure traveler and the demand from business travelers is insufficient, the airplane simply doesn't fly.

    Some airlines like JetBlue do more what you suggest and have relatively flat fares. Most airlines find that that's not the best pricing model. In my experience, I have always found JetBlue more expensive than alternatives.

    It is not easy pricing airline tickets: The different passengers garner vastly different values from the flight. Price discrimination used to be haphazard and inconvenient with lame heuristics like Saturday night stays. It has gotten a lot better.

  • ||

    I'm not against any of the FAA regulations--if you look into the history of them, almost every single one of them came into existence through some fatal accident.

    While your message carries some truth, you take it too far. For example, what fatal accident prompted oxygen masks in the passenger compartment? I am not aware of a single death or injury due to lack of oxygen from depressurization in a commercial airplane.

    They are literally written in blood.

    Actually, for the case of the oxygen masks in the passenger compartment, this statement is truer than you can even imagine.

    The requirement for oxygen masks for passengers was the very first in a chain of errors that cost the lives of the 110 people aboard ValuJet 592.

  • Billy Beck||

    "Hard to believe that two large airplanes with the entire airspace of the US to fly around in, could fly into each other, right...?"

    Right. The two hundred hours as PIC in my logbook tell me exactly that. That's not a lot, but an old friend of mine with a whole USAF career in fast jets (including 250 rides in the Southeast Asian War Games) tells me the same thing, and he's not the only one.

    You don't know what you're talking about. A mid-air takes a great deal of dedication and hard work.

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