Rethinking Airline Deregulation

The challenge to the US Airways/American merger led Justin Fox to reconsider the much-vaunted “success” of passenger airline deregulation:

Before deregulation, airlines in the U.S. were pretty reliable moneymakers. [After deregulation they] lost $41.6 billion (in 2011 dollars). And it’s not just shareholders who have come off terribly. The past few decades have been, if anything, an even bigger disaster for airline employees, many of whom have seen their pensions mostly evaporate and their pay and status diminish. Taxpayers haven’t come off untouched, either — getting stuck with partial pension bailouts and big loan guarantees to aid the ailing industry in recent years along with ongoing subsidies for airport construction and improvement.

But at least things are good for CEOs, right? Doug Henwood adds more critical perspective:

Between 1963 (when the figures begin) and 1979, the airfare subindex of the CPI grew 25% more slowly than the overall CPI. Since 1979, it’s growth 2.4 times as fast as overall inflation. A major reason for this is that there are many fewer nonstop flights than in the regulated days, and far tighter advance purchase restrictions. To the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which computes the CPI, such quality decreases are the same as price increases. (This is the opposite of the logic prevailing in computers, where rapidly increasing power is the same as a price decline.) And then ridership. Between 1948 and 1978, annual passenger miles flown grew 12% a year; since then, they’ve grown less than 4%.

Perhaps we can thank the deregulators for one thing: cutting the climate impact of a carbon-intensive industry.

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