Politics & Policy

How the Left Ruined Air Travel

Jets at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (Scott Olson/Getty)
It will take drastic action to make air travel bearable again.

This week, after three years, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals gave Kennedy International Airport permission to shoot some birds that fly around the runways threatening to cause plane crashes. This ruling — and the three years it took to appear — shed some light on a subject I’ve wondered about for a long time: Why is air travel so grotesquely unpleasant?

I’ve been writing professionally for ten years; in that time, I have played my professional-writer card exactly once, last year, after a flight on United Airlines. My three-hour flight was delayed for six hours, till 3 a.m.; the delay was the result of our plane having been docked at the wrong gate and forgotten about. No one had cleaned it, and it hadn’t been connected to the airport’s power supply. When they found the plane, and loaded us onto it, its engines wouldn’t start, because it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and without power, the engines were frozen. Because the engines were frozen, the cabin heat couldn’t be turned on. Since the plane wasn’t ready to go, the door was left open. Before long, the entire cabin and all of us inside it were 10 degrees Fahrenheit. We sat there shivering for two hours while they tried to get the engines started. The next day, my return flight was delayed seven hours, because our pilots had hit their maximum legal air-time, and no one had thought to find replacements.

Everyone has bad-flight stories. I was prepared to shrug it off until United offered to make it up to me with a 50-dollar gift certificate toward a future United flight, and asked me for my “feedback.” I fired off a snippy e-mail telling them to keep their gift card and that any feedback they got from me would appear on NRO. I felt silly the moment I’d sent it, but there it was. They responded by offering me 50 dollars more.

Despite deregulation, there is no real competition among airlines.

Everyone’s blown his top at an airline once or twice. When I simmered down, I started wondering just how air travel had gotten so bad. It used to be, you showed up at the airport, walked onto your plane 30 or 40 minutes later, got attentive service from a courteous flight crew, and arrived at your destination in a reasonably good mood. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was designed to increase competition among airlines and let the free market make flying even better. That’s how free markets work. Where did it all go wrong?

Obviously, the TSA is part of it, but only part. That’s too shallow an answer. The real reason is that, despite deregulation, there is no real competition among airlines. Why is that?

Because the four major U.S. airlines — United, American, Delta and Southwest — have monopolies over particular markets. At 40 percent of America’s large airports, one of the big four controls an outright majority of the seats sold. At 93 percent of the large airports, a majority is controlled by two of the four combined. Which means their market shares are assured and there’s no need to compete with one another.

Where do the monopolies come from? Why don’t smaller, newer airlines just start flying out of the monopolized airports?

There aren’t enough airports for the volume of air traffic the American market demands.

Because of airport “slots.” That is, rights for an airline to fly planes in and out of an airport. Big airports are “slot-limited” to reduce congestion; slot distribution tends to be based (according to a report in the Washington Post) on “historic flight levels,” which means the big airlines get to continue being big airlines, by being given most of the slots. Up-for-grabs slots are very valuable and expensive; as a rule, the four major airlines are the airlines that are in a position to buy them.

Why is that?

Because there aren’t enough airports. Finally, we’re closing in on the root of the problem. There aren’t enough airports for the volume of air traffic the American market demands. Few airports means few slots, which means few airlines able to compete.

#share#So why don’t we build more airports?

Because airports need to be built near the cities they serve. The cities they serve are controlled by leftists who make construction a Sisyphean nightmare. Take our own New York City. JFK is the worst airport in the country. It would like to refurbish itself, improve and expand, but it’s surrounded on three sides by neighborhoods that wouldn’t tolerate the Concorde; that barely tolerate JFK as it is now and will brook no expansion. On its fourth side, JFK is bounded by federally protected wetlands, so that’s a non-starter too. New construction has to be on JFK’s existing footprint, and that new construction has to abide by New York’s absurdly onerous labor and environmental laws. Nonetheless, Governor Cuomo insists that JFK’s rebuilding will happen. According to Forbes, Cuomo’s plan for JFK will address New York’s passenger needs from 2050 forward.

To put that in perspective, if the Wright Brothers’ first flight were this year, Cuomo would be talking about fixing JFK in time for the invention of the jet.

Now imagine that JFK were being started from scratch.

Airports need to be built near the cities they serve. The cities they serve are controlled by leftists who make construction a Sisyphean nightmare.

New Orleans has just finished the design of a new terminal for Louis Armstrong International Airport. The terminal will cost $650 million, of which more than $100 million has been earmarked for environmental-impact and design studies, and for administrative costs, which will be incurred because of such hurdles as New Orleans’s “goal” that a third of all construction contracts go to “Disadvantaged Business Enterprises.”

(What is a “Disadvantaged Business Enterprise”? you ask. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “DBEs are for-profit small business concerns where socially and economically disadvantaged individuals own at least a 51% interest and also control management and daily business operations. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Pacific and Subcontinental Asian Americans, and women are presumed to be socially and economically disadvantaged. Other individuals can also qualify as socially and economically disadvantaged on a case-by-case basis.”)

How much more than $100 million would Armstrong International’s red-tape fund have to be if it were starting from scratch, rather than adding a single new terminal?

The Left likes to talk about building infrastructure. Roads and bridges. Among bridges, President Obama particularly likes the Golden Gate: “When we invested in the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge . . . those things benefited everybody. And so that’s the vision I want to carry forward.” The federal government was involved in the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge because it owned the land on either side of the Golden Gate Strait. The winning proposal for the bridge was made in 1916; by 1932, it still wasn’t done. So a private banker named Amadeo Giannini bought out the government, and had the bridge finished by 1937. President Obama is right; this is a good lesson about construction in the United States.

So: Air travel is bad because there’s no competition, because there are too few airlines, because there are too few airports, because the feds and city governments make big construction projects nigh-on impossible. So how do we fix air travel? We have either got to start building airports far enough outside of metro areas that labor-environmentalism is a non-issue, or conservatives have to start winning mayorships.

Until then, every commercial flight is going to be a little worse than the last. Buckle up.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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