Commentary

Airlines in the Aftermath

By Edward L. Hudgins
October 10, 2001
The first function of government is to protect the lives, liberties, and property of the citizens. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, air travel safety is a top priority. The Bush administration has made suggestions meant to protect airline passengers and to ensure that a plane will never again be used as a flying bomb. But policy makers must examine the intended as well as unintended consequences of such suggestions to ensure both the safety of travelers and the economic soundness of America’s transportation system.

Before the attacks some 6,200 planes made 24,600 flights carrying around 1.8 million Americans per day. The industry employed nearly 700,000 workers (about 100,000 are being laid off). Annual passenger and freight revenues were about $130 billion. The airlines were facing economic difficulties before the attacks and now find individuals avoiding airports from fear both of future attacks and of a recession that leaves less money for air travel. Though they already have received a bailout from Congress, the fate of the airlines will depend upon the security measures taken in the future.

Airports are strange entities. Most are owned by local governments. The flights, food concessions, and other services are provided by the private sector. The airlines pay for and provide most passenger screening. But airport security, airline safety, and even aircraft design are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The federal government owns and operates the Air Traffic Control system.

Of course, when everyone is in charge, it often means no one is in charge. The airlines can claim that they are only following FAA orders and the FAA can claim that the airlines are not doing an adequate job of enforcing regulations. One way to deal with this problem would be to privatize the airports, as has been done in Britain and other European countries, and to put the airports themselves in charge of security. That approach seems to work well on the other side of the Atlantic. Most important in this country would be to make private airports legally liable for security lapses.

The Bush administration wants more active federal involvement in airport security, with federal agents overseeing passenger screening. Some policymakers want the federal government to take over airport security, which at least would unify protection in one entity. But such an approach, while relieving the airlines of a financial burden in the short-term, could cause serious long-term problems.

Consider another current problem with air travel. Since airlines were deregulated in 1978 the real cost of flying has dropped by at least one-third and thus the number of flights made by Americans has risen from 275 million to 660 million a year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the FAA’s Air Traffic Control system can’t keep up and is responsible for many flight delays and much airport congestion. Is it wise to turn over all security to a government struggling to modernize the ATC system?

Further, security-related check-in delays could seriously affect the airlines’ economic viability and a federalized system might not be able to adequately respond to that problem. Consider: It probably takes an hour on average to drive to an airport, park, and take a shuttle bus to the terminal or even to take a taxi there. Currently it takes about two hours to get through check-in and security. Add at least 15 minutes to retrieve checked bags at the destination. And most flights are at least an hour from pushing off at the gate to deplaning at the other end. So all flights could require more than a four-hour time commitment to say nothing of money. But you can drive 250-300 miles in that time, listening to the radio rather than standing in endless lines. And you don’t need to rent a car at your destination.

Which routes would be affected if more would-be fliers take to the roads? Washington to Pittsburgh, Raleigh-Durham and Syracuse; Houston to San Antonio, Dallas and Baton Rouge; Chicago to Detroit and St. Louis; St. Louis to Indianapolis, Louisville, and Kansas City; Tampa to Miami, Jacksonville, and Tallahassee; Atlanta to Nashville, Savannah and Birmingham; Albuquerque to El Paso; Seattle to Spokane; Los Angeles to Las Vegas to name a few.

To attract passengers, the airlines might be willing to hire more screeners to reduce long lines. But with federalized security the number of screeners would depend on the uncertainties of the federal budget process. Would Congress spend more money not to protect safety but to protect airline profits?

Policy makers have some serious decisions to make that will affect the future of travel in this country. While there are no easy solutions, policy makers should at least give careful consideration of the trade-offs involved lest they exchange one set of problems for another.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.