Over the past few weeks, travel commentators have been beating the “airline regulation” drum. However, let’s be careful throwing the regulation word around. Most travelers are actually looking for basic consumer protections, not re-regulation.
Deregulation has been an amazing success. Without deregulation, we would not have Southwest Airlines or JetBlue. Without deregulation, many smaller airports would have never been opened to scheduled airline service. Without deregulation, low cost carriers would not have changed the landscape in Europe for vacationers and businessmen, not to mention destinations that have seen rising numbers of tourists.
Back in 2005 Daniel W. Drezner blogged about deregulation.
Since federal restrictions on routes and fares were removed, consumers have been saving $20 billion a year on air fares, when adjusted for inflation, according to Brookings. Fares have dropped by more than 30 percent, on average, and as much as 70 percent when tickets are bought in advance, the group concluded.
At the same time, airlines have vastly expanded their networks, bringing air travel – a relatively infrequent experience [several decades ago] – to people all over the country. For example, American, the biggest airline, flew to just 50 cities in 1975; it now serves more than three times that number. Southwest, which started in 1971 with a single route in Texas, now flies to 61 cities, not counting those it serves through a code-sharing arrangement with ATA.
Deregulation has been a beyond-your-wildest-dreams success. Consumers have more choice than ever before, more destinations and lower prices. They can choose from flying on relatively-Spartan Southwest to luxuriating in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class or checking in at Lufthansa’s First-Class-only terminal in Frankfurt.
The problem with the system is that the government has not kept up with its side of the bargain. The air traffic control system is mired in the 1980s. The physical control tower infrastructure is crumbling. Basic consumer rights are not enforced — airlines use bait-and-switch advertising and disguise their prices with a plethora of hidden fees for everything from checked luggage to meals, pillows and blankets that are discovered only after going through almost the entire booking process.
We don’t need to go back to the good old days of regulation. We need to go back to the good old days of government that actually worked and functioned for the people, the airlines’ customers. Basic enforcement of normal consumer protections, honest advertising and old-time customer service would stop the current trend of unconscionable customer care.
That enforcement would silence consumer advocates clamoring for re-regulation as well.