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In Defense of the Airlines

My friend Burt Blumert was not happy with his flight to London. He thinks it was better back in 1965. (I, of course, am much too young to remember.) Still, I can sympathize. But the free market was at work in some areas of his flight, while interventionism was at work in other areas. Let’s sort them out.

Like every passenger destined for steerage, there is the knowledge that conditions are better on the other side of the curtain. I did not have bonus miles nor time and energy to search out a “deal.” If I wanted a better seat I’d have to buy it. The price of a roundtrip San Francisco-London business class ticket was $3500. I decided to suffer in economy, and suffer I did.

The free market allows us to pay for the kind of suffering we prefer. That’s consumer sovereignty. Burt and I share two main things: the same day of birth — but not the same year! — and the desire to save a buck. The suffering of $3,500, round-trip, would have been too much for me, too.

Basically, there are two free market choices: save money and stand in line (and sit in a lousy seat) vs. spend money and save time (and sit in a nice seat). Burt did not spend time shopping for a deal. Had he flown for half the fare, his seat might have seemed more comfortable.

On the face of it, prices compared with years ago may appear at bargain levels, but many of today’s passengers are “on the house.” They are recipients of mileage plus coupons. Upgrades, airline employees, their friends and family fill the bulk of the seats, often the choice ones up front.

Prices today are at bargain levels, if your time isn’t worth much. If you have a coupon, fares are at fantastic levels. If you use priceline.com, you can get great prices, assuming you can figure out Priceline’s software. (My wife couldn’t.) If the airlines reward employees with difficult-to-tax payments (free seats) instead of higher wages, it saves the companies money, which is part of capitalism.

An airport has been defined as a construction site where they land planes. That’s always been true, but it’s worse than ever today. Many overseas travelers will relate that their worst frustration involves getting in and around the airports. Delays plague almost every commercial carrier. Add to that the cumbersome and often unnecessary security measures bugging the traveler, which add hours to a scheduled flight.

One word explains this: government. Governments pay for airport construction, so it goes on interminably. Airport road traffic is high. That’s because the State offers free roads. Flights are delayed. The government runs the air traffic control system. Also, flights are not charged extra at peak-hours, which a free market system would do. Those 6 a.m. flights usually take off on time.

In the old days they were called stewardesses, all single, husband-hunting attractive young women clearly on site to please the predominantly male clientele. Aka flight attendants, today they are more like matrons in a women’s prison whose sole purpose is to herd the sheeple into compliance.

In the good old days, the flight attendants’ union had not yet gained a stranglehold on the airlines. The union enforces strict seniority rules now. Some of these women knew the Beach Boys. Their kid sisters dated them. Repeal the Wagner Act and shut down the National Labor Relations Board, and stewardesses will get younger and better looking. The pilots will see to that.

Another factor: back in propeller days, it took twice as long to fly coast-to-coast. Stewardesses had a lot of free time, and they chatted with young men in suits. That was back when most passengers were men with good jobs and no discount coupons. The prop flights offered marriage opportunities — upward social mobility for most of the girls. Jets ruined this. So did price competition: planes filled with wives and small children.

No, I have not forgotten airline food. Not only was what they served inedible, it was unidentifiable.

Price competition is the free market’s way. When the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) regulated fares — price floors — airlines competed in terms of frills. You paid far more for a ticket than today, but you got better food. Those were very expensive meals, if you compare ticket costs, then vs. now (discounting for inflation). I prefer cheap flights and peanuts (where the peanut allergy police have not banned them.)

At 23, I did not fly much in 1965. What I do remember was how cheap it was to fly intrastate in California, and how expensive it was to fly across a border. The CAB could not legally regulate intrastate fares, and California’s Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) took advantage of this. PSA proved to Congress — yes, even Ted Kennedy — that government-imposed price floors on air travel hurt the public.

In tribute to PSA, I plan in the near future to eat some peanuts in a public place — while it’s still legal.

July 29, 2000

Gary North is the author of Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, which is available free of charge as a downloaded text at www.freebooks.com.