The myth of over burdensome regulation

I follow certain topics on the web, and in the “old” media very closely, including, of course, my passion and profession, photography. I also closely follow issues such as politics, news from India, the foreclosure crisis, the media itself (old and new) as well as events in the Middle East, etc. All of that is not terribly unusual. But what is extraordinary to me is the one subject that I follow the most closely, after the obvious topics. I recently realized that, in this day of partisan divides my perspective on this one issue mirrors my perspective on government in general. (Spoiler alert here! I am about to get political.)

(First, I have read and been told, over and over, why I should not mix politics in with my blogs, which are ostensibly about photography. I am told that bringing in politics will likely lose me some readers. On political questions, I believe a good healthy debate is important and so I stay away from many topics since my perspective is no more likely to be “right” than the next guys. On the topic I will be writing about, my position is based upon decades of following this issue and hundreds of personal experiences that have served to firmly establish my conviction upon this matter.)

The airline industry is the subject that I follow the most closely after the current events printed across my copy of the New York Times. Because I dreamed of being an astronaut as a child, I have along standing interest in aviation. Today, much of my work requires me to travel and so I follow news of the airline industry with avid interest.

On my first international trip, when I was all of 18 years old in 1975, a ticket from Los Angeles to Israel cost $1800 dollars (the equivalent of over $7,000 today.) As this blog entry is posted, I will be a quarter of the way through an 18 day trip to Israel and England that is costing me a mere $1,200 by comparison. (Yes, it is not a perfect comparison since it is undoubtedly cheaper going from Providence to Israel, but that is not the biggest difference.)

The biggest difference between that trip more then 30 years ago and my current travel is that commercial air travel has been continually deregulated. The number of airlines and flights has increased dramatically, both domestically and internationally, especially within emerging economies like India, China and Brazil. Some people would argue that deregulation has gone too far, while others think that we need more regulation. Most of those arguments are about the large-scale costs and benefits of airline deregulation, on a macro-economic scale. I wish I knew enough on this subject to say something wise and insightful, but I confess I do not. (A good place to start learning about the larger picture on this issue is to look at the Airline Deregulation Act that was signed into law in 1978.)

What I know the most about is from flying in the passenger’s seat. Over the last four decades, I have watched commercial air travel from inside the cabins of countless planes as well as from outside as a business. To me, the ongoing evolution of commercial travel is a byproduct of the healthy tug of war between regulators and free market capitalism. Though I know that we need both sides to spur innovation and keep costs under control, on the level of the passenger’s experience, I find myself in aligning with the side in favor of regulation.

Many times as my plane barrels down the runway lifting off into flight and my stomach seems to drop out and I get a bit nervous, I also marvel at the near miracle that is commercial air travel today. At other times, as I sweat inside a plane on some sweltering tarmac and am told that we are “fifteenth in line for take off,” I curse the absurdities of commercial air travel.

With ant-government crowd in ascendance in this country, I have long wanted to grab a few of these so-called “starve the beast” crowd of government opponents by the collar and shout at them (although i am not an angry person in general.) I would point out that the supposedly “evil” government builds our roads, maintains our bridges, protects our food, water and medicine as well as “providing for the common defense.” Who exactly do they think will pay for those things, let alone do them, if “we” do not pay the government to do them with our tax dollars?

Is the United States government perfect? No! Are the people behind the government ever perfect? Of course not! So why in the world would we expect the government to be any better than we are ourselves? All of this has been swirling around in my head lately. After flying constantly and reading about aviation mishap after mishap, I realized that I want more government involvement in commercial aviation, not less. The folks on the Southwest Airlines jet (and the Aloha Airlines jet in 1988) that had the fuselage rip open would probably be happier if more government inspectors had been riding the airline maintenance staffs of those airlines more rigidly.

Like most people, I have wasted copious amounts of time stuck in aviation limbo. Despite the complaints from airlines about what they call ”over burdensome regulation” in the form of a traveler’s bill of rights, the newest regulations controlling those same kinds of delays have recently caught the attention of the airlines. In March, I was called by an airline and warned about a pending preemptive cancellation. It took us a lot of creative thinking to figure out a way around the problem and I made my international flight and was not trapped on a patch of tarmac (where I still might be waiting.) In my eyes, that was a victory for improved airline behavior in response to regulation (and creative thinking.)

My recent flights have shown me how those same regulations are trickling down to ordinary passengers like you and me. Innovations like earlier boarding times and more frequent updates help to reduce the length and/or mitigate the pain of “tarmac time”. The recent reports about air traffic controllers sleeping on the job are not encouraging to me as an air traveler. Not that private industry would have managed such situations much better. I have spent plenty of time in and around private industry and I would still rather have public service employees, whose skills are determined by empirical standards rather than executive fiat, sitting in those same air traffic control posts. Ideally of course, they would be awake on the job.

From what I have read, the next round of airline regulation will require transparency in pricing, so that all of the growing number of hidden fees will be visible to the traveler. Also, the airlines will soon have to refund the baggage fee you pay for checked luggage if it is lost. Common sense says that if you are going to charge me for a service (one that used to be part of my ticket costs) and then you fail to perform that service, then you must refund my money. This is not rocket science. (Flying a plane may be closer to rocket science but creating common sense regulation to protect the traveling public should not be that hard.)

The airline industry has fought (and continues to fight) nearly every bit of regulation that has been imposed on it over the last 30 plus years. They are happy to pile on hidden fee after hidden fee and they willingly tolerate marooning passengers for hours. Those same airlines argue for what they call self-regulation. If that sounds like the fox guarding the hen house, it is because it largely is.

(Keep in mind that as a self-employed, small businessman/entrepreneur, I should be, and occasionally I am suspicious of government regulation. I see some places where we need even more regulation and other areas where I think the government has gone too far. In a future blog entry, I will explore one area where, as I see it, the federal government has gone out of its way to make life difficult for people like me, with no clear benefit to society at large.)