In the United States, airlines are making money despite delays and horrible service. US Air, United, Delta, American Airlines, and Jet Blue have all reported hefty increases in profits. The reason: after a wave of chastening bankruptcies, they have cut capacity, bringing the number of available seats more into line with demand, and reducing the scramble to peddle empty seats at any price above the almost zero cost of carrying an additional passenger. This past summer, carriers operated at around 86 percent load factors (percent of seats filled), which is good for the carriers, but not so good for travelers wedged into middle seats or hoping to cadge a seat on some frequent-flyer program. Still, there are bargains available for anyone willing to take to the air on the slow travel days during the holiday season, a gift to the traveling ublic from Alfred Kahn, the Cornell economist who pushed through deregulation when chairing the now-defunct regulatory agency, and this month was toasted by his former students and colleagues at a 90th birthday celebration. Travelers might also hoist a glass.But getting airborne is not fun, because the incentives are wrong.
That provokes a wicked thought on this 44th anniversary of the shameful act of vandalism called "redeveloping Pennsylvania Station." The corporate puffery of the day promised a train station that would compare favorably with an airport. In that, they succeeded.
Which brings us to Washington's Dulles, London's Heathrow, and other airports around the world. If lines lengthen at security check points no one has an incentive to add staff, open more lanes, or do anything to relieve the passenger's plight. By contrast, such a situation at Whole Foods, Giant, or any respectable supermarket results in the opening of more check-out lines to relieve congestion. Store managers have an incentive to prevent customers from taking their business elsewhere; airport managers don't, or think they don't. Indeed, they have every incentive to keep costs down and profits up, even if that means providing a miserable service. Imagine what life would be like in an airport in which security personnel, or at least the managers, had their pay cut every time lines lengthened beyond some target limit, and the power to correct the situation.
Now consider the world's airlines' roles in all of this. They have by and large acted as if their customers' experience in airports is none of their concern. Yes, some have set up fast-track security lanes for their best customers, but most have left their passengers at the mercy of a security system in which the operators have little reason to worry about passenger convenience. And most airlines view with equanimity the long lines of passengers waiting to check luggage and get boarding passes. All will be well when the passenger tunes into some great in-flight entertainment system. Unless, of course, he or she is sitting on the tarmac for a few hours, in which case the airlines are guessing that their customers are not completely up-to-date on the carriers' reluctance to fund a new air-traffic control system that might eliminate such annoyances.
But why should the carriers fund the traffic-control system if it can be fobbed off on aviation hobbyists or corporate jet fleets, or on the general run of taxpayers?