Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Re-Regulating the Airlines, Part V

This past summer, I was forced to deal with flight delays (NOT due to weather) of more than three hours on three separate occasions.  Why?  One was mechanical (the airline no longer had a full-time mechanic in Wichita due to cutbacks) and the other two were due to the air traffic control system that is now unable to come close to handling the demands imposed by the hub system, like it could given the point-to-point flights that existed prior to 1979's deregulation when flights were evenly spaced.

So, lets go back to my example of the airline that wants to operate with superior service:  It can’t because there are a finite number of ‘slots’  (government-allocated permssions to operate a flight into the more crowded airports like O’Hare or JFK).  So, if Southwest (a no-frills, low-fare airline is delayed) so is our new airline that wants to operate a superior service. Even if an airline wanted to pay extra for one of these coveted slots (that are granted by the government, which, by the way needs the revenue) in return for preferential treatment of its flights, it can’t:  All slots are created equal so everyone suffers the delay.  Even if you got a great drink and dinner when flying from Wichita to Chicago, you aren’t going to feel the additional $50 was worth it if you arrive three hours late and still have to wait for your bags at the carousel (because the FAA won’t allow a third carryon). 

The ATC system (which now has the technical capability to operate safely and even land a plane in near zero visibility) has neither the people nor facilities expanded to keep up with demand. So, all airlines offer the same unreliable timeliness these days.  It is impossible to compete on service, so they compete on price, and the quality/service “death spiral” continues. 

Why hasn’t the air traffic system kept up with demand?  One, it is very difficult to improve on the system that has produced extraordinary safety.  Some years there are zero accidents among the major U.S. airlines.  Adding more controllers, alone, won’t work because there are almost no additional runways for landings and takeoffs. O'Hare, DFW and Atlanta have each added one runway in the last ten years, that's about it.

The system can handle more flights in-between cities but where are the controllers supposed to put the extra planes when it is time to land given the inadequate number of runways?

Why aren’t we building runways?  Part of it is "not in my back yard." But another part is: The litigation explosion.  

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