Monday, July 30, 2007

Blame it on Kahn

There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror. ~Orson Welles

It's not often you can look at a disaster that has taken years to unfold and say, "And there's the guy who did it." The disaster I'm considering is the U.S. airline industry.

Setting aside Southwest, whom we will discuss in a bit, the airline industry has been, if you'll pardon the mixed transportation metaphor, a train wreck. Delta and United have done the Chapter 11 thing; Northwester still is doing it. American managed to wangle concessions out of employees in 2003 to keep themselves alive, but you know that won't last.

To make up for the lack of solvency, the airlines have added a lack of service. Lost luggage, pitiful on-time rates, and whimsical cancellations are all part of air travel today. Thank god, I don't have to any more. We owe this state of affairs in great part to the deregulation of the airlines that occurred in 1978. And for that, you can, in large part, blame Alfred Kahn.

Mr. Kahn was a Cornell economist when he managed to con the gullible members of the Carter administration and the always gullible members of Congress to pass the Airline Deregulation Act. He now chortles about how, thanks to him, ariline fares are so low.

Well, to an extent, they are, although the costs due to improper maintenance, canceled flights, and general inconvenience have to be factored in. When they are, I'm not so sure how cheap flights are.

There is also the problem of "you can't get here from there." The one thing the airlines wanted to do was drop "unprofitable" routes. Deregulation provided the means to do that, meaning that a good number of people now either have to pay absurdly large ticket prices to fly out of someplace like Montgomery, Alabama, or they can't fly at all, having to drive long distances to get to an airport that is on a "profitable" route.

Actually, given the airlines current performance, there don't appear to be any profitable routes.

Southwest, of course, is the notable exception, although even their performance is not what it was. Southwest figured out that you didn't need to serve lousy food on a flight, you don't need separate classes, and you don't need to fly twelve different models of airplane. Oh, and you can fly to some of those places that the big airlines didn't think were "profitable."

Southwest employees are a lot of fun (at least they used to be; as I said, I haven't flown in several years). On one flight, the flight attendant was going through the safety drill that no one listens to. Suddenly, she said, "In the unlikely event that we lose cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead compartments. After you've stopped screaming, plut your on like this."

Okay, now she had everyone's attention. If that wasn't good enough, she continued, "If the person next to you is a child or is acting like one, put your own mask on first, then assist the other person in putting theirs on." It was the only preflight instructions I ever heard that got applause.

She got us on the landing, too. We were flying to Brownsville, Texas, not something most people would do if they had the choice. Evidently, the attendant felt that way, too. As we rolled toward the terminal, she said, "Welcome to Corpus Christi!" The entire airplane went, "WHAT?!!"

On another occasion, I was flying back from Houston to Birmingham, and the takeoff was delayed in Houston, through no fault of the Southwest crew, who were ready to leave on time. We took off about twenty minutes late. We had a stopover in New Orleans. Most of the time, when the plane reaches the terminal, there's this annoying wait, while they get the tunnel thingy lined up and do whatever else they do. Not this time. I swear the attendants had the door open before the plane stopped, forming a human chain to grab the tunnel and drag it to the door. They then politely but firmly got everyone off the plane who was supposed to get off. Then they herded the incoming passengers into the plane, stuffing luggage into the overheads and seating about thirty or so people in record time.

We left the gate in under 15 minutes. We got to Birmingham all of five minutes late; the pilot evidently knew a shortcut. When we landed, the pilot got on the intercom and apologized for being five minutes late!

When was the last time anyone apologized to you for not delivering on a promise? More importantly, when did anyone last apologize to you and take responsibility for something that wasn't their fault?

Southwest mirrors the personality of its boss; the other airlines probably also mirror the personalities of their bosses, who only travel first class and get huge bonuses for coming out of Chapter 11. Perhaps deregulation gave us Southwest, but I think a Southwest could prosper in any environment. I do know that overall, deregulation has given us an embarrassing airline industry.

So let's re-regulate the airlines. This time, though, everyone has to run their outfit like Southwest. Low fares, on-time flights, no movies or plastic food.

Alfred Kahn won't care; he's 89 and stays home now.

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