Are Customers Better Off From Airline De-Regulation? Email Print

Ronald Reagan's famous line delivered at the close of his one and only debate with President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election was "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

While it was Reagan's presidential predecessor Carter who de-regulated the airline industry, this was a page taken from the playbook of the suave former actor with the well-modulated voice.  Reagan declared that it was time to "get the government off people's backs" and let it be known that this was a major goal of his administration.  Neither friend nor foe would deny that this goal was steadily accomplished.

Carter did no more than get the motor running with airline de-regulation.  Reagan, operating in a manner that brought broad smiles to the face of his economic guru Milton Friedman, believed that all we needed to make America the "city on the hill" of his dreams was to remove the dreaded shackles of big government and let the free market take over.

Friedman, a controversial Nobel Prize winner in economics who had been an adviser to the presidential regime of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, was the economic world's most ebullient advocate of privatization, extending all the way to police and fire protection.

The thought about privatization and the  invocation of economic freedom delivered by Reagan in his declaration about getting the government off of the backs of American citizens merged with that of asking people if they were better off than they had been previously, this time applied to airline regulation, surfaced for me May 26 as I explored Denver International Airport prior to boarding a Frontier Airlines flight for Seattle.

As I ate in a crowded restaurant the group seated at the next table anxiously wondered whether their flight would be departing on schedule.  "I wonder if we'll ever get to Chicago tonight," the oldest member of the group said, looking and sounding fatigued.  He was with a married couple in their thirties.  

While they ate and sipped beer, the younger man kept anxiously texting on his Blackberry.  "It says that the flight is scheduled to leave on time," he tried injecting some hopeful optimism into a prevailing air of uncertainty.

After I finished eating I joined a crowded contingent of passengers awaiting the opportunity to board planes.  I recalled what it was like in those days long ago before airline de-regulation and its proclaimed benefits to consumers.  Late this afternoon I observed a large contingent of customers waiting to board flights with expressions embodying shell-shocked fatigue.

A frustrated passenger sitting next to me explained his situation in a tired voice in a cell phone call to someone presumably at his intended destination:  "They delayed the flight an hour and forty minutes.  If it takes off then, I won't be in London until tomorrow somewhere around 3:30."

I focused my attention on a tired looking group hoping to finally fly home to Atlanta.  One man, who was passing the time whiling away on his laptop, told his traveling companions:  "Wouldn't it be nice to be here real early in the morning and you could have fun sliding down an escalator with nobody around?"

A member of the group suddenly materialized, husband and father of a young girl that the laptop user also sought to amuse to relieve her boredom, explained that their Atlanta flight was supposed to finally board.  In search of an empathic soul, he looked at me and grinned.  I did not disappoint.  

I fully empathized with a smile and fully supporting laugh when he looked my way and grinned as he delivered the corporate platitude he heard about the intent to fly on schedule and properly service customers.

Moments later the group departed.  As I watched them walk away I hoped that they would finally be accommodated.  I wondered how long they had been waiting for the opportunity.

As for waiting, I had done a good deal of it myself.  In the desire to convenience themselves, Frontier Airlines' flight from San Jose, Costa Rica had a scheduled 6 a.m. departure.  That flight took off on time.  

The reason was obvious.  You get the plane off early to start a long flight day.  The bad news arises at the next stop, where passengers are jockeyed around to convenience tight-fisted airlines seeking to get the most out of their flights, specifically as many as possible and hopefully packed to capacity.

While passengers can be greatly inconvenienced on the one hand with long delays, with regulations no longer an impediment, airlines no longer have the restrictions that were previously in place preventing scheduling flights too close together.

For years I never missed a connecting flight.  Now it has become a regular occurrence since airlines have a strong measure of control, with the objective being as many flights to as many destinations per day with the planes full.

My long wait during an entire afternoon had now extended to early evening.  Finally I recognized why this delay had occurred.  Another flight finally arrived at what was to be my departing gate.  Passengers moved through, meaning that we would hopefully finally board.  I had awakened at 3:15 a.m. for the first flight and my next one to Seattle was supposed to leave at 7:30 p.m. after a gate change and a time delay.

A large throng sat in the gate area beyond which the plane was scheduled to leave for Seattle.  This was the type of situation that called for a crew to be available to direct the boarding process.  Instead one person emerged, a slender, white-haired, bespectacled man with the expression of the person who had drawn the short straw for an unenviable chore, which might be an accurate summation of what occurred.

The boarding process understandably lacked smoothness, given the fact that one person was in charge of all aspects, beginning with checking boarding passes.  The plane filled up.  I had the aisle seat.  The lady in the window seat had a large white dog.  

The middle seat was unoccupied and so I thought that, even with the unheard of act of the regulation days of a dog sharing space with regular passengers, the middle seat might be vacant.  This was not so on a plane destined to be filled to bulging capacity.

Toward the end of the boarding process a young Ethiopian man now making his home in Seattle entered the plane.  His soft, quiet manner disguised the surprise and discontent he felt when he found himself sharing space between myself, the lady, and her large dog.  The only positive note was that he was a short man of slender build.  What if we'd had a giant?

Since the flight took off later than anticipated for reasons earlier mentioned, I became concerned whether I would be able to catch the Puget Sound Transit Train that services the area between the airport and downtown Seattle.  I asked the two female flight attendants servicing my area if they knew how long the trains ran.  They said they did not and that I should speak to Frontier customer service personnel once we landed.

When alas we finally did land I asked not one but two Frontier Airlines customer service personnel that question.  They were delighted to tell me that even though we had passed the 11 p.m. mark that I had plenty of time since Sound Transit operated its trains until 12:30.

After picking up my one traveling bag I was on the escalator heading toward the exit that would eventually take me to the embarkation point for the train that would hopefully take me to downtown Seattle, where I could then catch a night owl local bus for home.

I then heard an announcement on the airport public address system.  The final train for the evening was now embarking for downtown Seattle.  Transportation would then resume at 5 a.m.  It was 11:10 p.m. as the announcement was made.  As I made my way outside I saw the train pulling away.

In my deep frustration I went back into the airport to see if the shuttle bus service that runs between the airport and a series of downtown Seattle hotels was still operating.  I learned that it had also shut down for the night.

Suddenly a familiar face loomed.  It belonged to my Ethiopian traveling companion.  I explained my plight.  He exclaimed his disgust over the situation to which he had been subjected with the presence of the large dog in the regular seating area, leaving him cramped for space.  

"I will never travel with Frontier Airlines again!" he declared.

"They won't be getting anymore business from me, either," I assured.

How did I get home?  The only alternative was a taxi, a $50 ride from the airport to my Queen Anne home located near Seattle Center.

So there you have it, a current story from the delightfully privatized morning in America that Ronald Reagan and his economic idol Milton Friedman envisioned for us, and that plays out as mourning in America.

For those of you who were dazzled by Reagan's smile and style, do you feel better off now than when he arrived on the American political scene?    


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