Jonah Goldberg has an amusing column up at The National Review on how awful air travel in the United States continues to be. Excerpt:
Over the weekend, an idiot walked the wrong way through a secure exit for arriving passengers at Newark airport. An entire terminal was shut down so that everybody on the "sterile" side of the security barriers could be herded back out and rescreened. The entire process took just under seven hours. The cascading delays disrupted air travel worldwide. They didn't even catch the doofus who caused the ruckus. […]
According to the latest epidemiological research, airports reside somewhere between no-frills Haitian brothels and Penn State fraternity bathrooms when it comes to hygiene. USA Today recently surveyed the health-inspection records of airport restaurants and found that serious code violations were as commonplace as rat and mouse droppings; 77 percent of 35 restaurants reviewed at Reagan National Airport had at least one major violation.
I could go on, of course. The petty humiliations, the routine deceptions from airline employees desperate to rid themselves of troublesome travelers ("Oh, they can definitely help you at the gate!"), the stress-position seats, the ever-changing rules for what can and cannot be in your carry-on, being charged for food that the Red Cross would condemn if it were served at Gitmo: Air travel is the most expensive unpleasant experience in everyday life outside the realm of words ending in -oscopy.
He ends with a nod toward policy:
Progressives insist the judicious application of regulations, the cooperation of "responsible" corporations, and the acquiescence of the American people are all that's needed to deliver everything from high-quality and affordable health care to "green cars" that run on little more than love for mother Earth.
No realm of American life is as auspiciously fecund with precisely such conditions as air travel. So — put up or shut up.
One rarely discussed aspect of how American airports are visibly slipping behind their international counterparts on just about every level of experience–wait times, customer service, cleanliness, crowding, and especially commerce–is that consumer airports in the United States are almost never privately owned or operated, despite the concept being "widespread in Europe and Latin America and catching on in Asia," according to this May 2009 USA Today article about Branson Airport (the "first commercial airport built and operated as a private, for-profit business for which federal, state and local taxpayers paid nothing"). As I concluded in this January 2005 Reason feature on European low-cost air travel,
the United States, which blazed the global trail of airline deregulation nearly three decades ago, will be choking on the exhaust of Old Europe for years to come
Sad, but true. The Reason Foundation's Bob Poole, whose intellectual work in the 1970s helped pave the way to that first deregulation, recently flagged in his Airport Policy News publication this 2008 study in the Journal of Urban Economics on airport performance based on ownership models. The study, Poole wrote,
used a data set of 109 airports of a variety of sizes and types. Of those in the 2004 sample, 27 were owned and operated by a city or state government, 25 by a U.S. airport authority, 16 had majority or totally private ownership, 12 were public-sector corporations, 7 were owned by U.S. port authorities, and 12 had mixed ownership.
Nearly all previous studies of comparative airport performance have largely ignored the ownership question, according to the authors. In addition, their analysis used a broader set of inputs and outputs than previous studies to measure airport efficiency.
Conclusion? According to Poole's reading,
airports in the categories of (a) private (or majority private), (b) public corporation (corporatized), and (c) airport authority are more efficient than those with various forms of majority or 100% government ownership. Second, among those with the four different types of government ownership, the least efficient are those owned by U.S. port authorities. Third, in those metro areas with multiple airports, efficiency is lower when those airports are government-owned, but not when they are owned by any of the corporate forms.
Regardless of your politics, is there anything remotely surprising about that conclusion? It's hardly a newsflash that governments don't run consumer businesses very well. So why do we continue tolerating government ownership in one of the most unpleasant consumer industries there is?