Finding ways to make airlines better


Nobody likes getting their flight delayed or cancelled. But is there a way to prevent this from frequently happening? — Pixabay

Let's face it, flying can be miserable. Especially when holiday travel plans get interrupted and flights are cancelled due to inclement weather. But how did the flying experience get so bad?

Ganesh Sitaraman, professor of law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in the United States, and author of the new book Why Flying Is Miserable: And How To Fix It, argues that it all stems from public policy choices – particularly a change to US airline regulation in 1978.

We caught up with Sitaraman to chat about travel horror stories, book influences and why flying is so expensive. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your most miserable flying experience?

One of the worst things that can happen is just getting so delayed or cancelled that you’re stuck in the city for an extra night when you didn’t anticipate that. To me, those are always the worst experiences ... where I really have something important that I was trying to get home for but ended up missing that last flight and running down from one end of the airport to the other and just seeing the flight pull away as you approach the gate knowing you just missed it by a couple of seconds. To me, that’s always the worst.

How has your father’s job flying all over the world and your father-in-law’s job as an air traffic controller influenced this book and your interest in air travel and regulation, if at all?

Flying was always something that was common to me. I knew what it meant to take long flights and short flights, and have frequent flyer miles and the status programmes, and to think about hubs and non-stop flights and connections. I knew about that for much of my life in part because I had people in my life who fly a lot.

This project is part of the larger co-authored book Networks, Platforms, And Utilities.

Photo: Columbia Global Reports/TNSPhoto: Columbia Global Reports/TNS

When did you realise that you had enough material to write a separate book on the US history of airline regulation and deregulation?

That’s really where this book came from. I was working on Networks, Platforms, And Utilities, which is the study of the law governing transportation, energy, telecommunications and banking, and I was writing the chapter on airlines for this textbook. As I was doing the research, it was just really exciting to learn what happened in the past and how choices that were made, and particularly the choice to deregulate the airline industry in 1978, has shaped everything about how flying operates even today.

As I was doing that work, I realised there’s just a lot here. ... It was a lot of stuff I didn’t know, despite being someone who does fly a lot and is interested in policy and regulation, and I just thought this was the perfect topic for a book because so many other people out there would feel the same way.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned?

So one of the most interesting things that I found in the book was that people in the industry (in the US) were opposed to deregulation, and that’s not usually how we think of it. We usually think people in business are in favour of deregulation. But in the 1970s, Robert Crandall, who was later the legendary head of American Airlines, showed up at one of the hearings in Congress for deregulation, and he was really upset about the possibility of (it) ...

People like him believe that the airline industry was a public utility. That it had critical public service elements. That it had to be governed that way for it to work effectively.

And so he was opposed to deregulation because he thought it would lead to real problems in the industry and he was right. It has led to real problems over many decades, and Crandall himself was then one of the most cut-throat competitors in the 1980s for American Airlines.

But once he retired, he went back to arguing that airlines are public utilities and that they should be regulated that way.

I think there’s this really interesting switch where the people in the industry who knew it best really thought that regulation was the right way to think about making airlines work for the American people.

If the argument for deregulation is to increase competition and keep costs down, why is flying so expensive today?

One of the reasons why you see higher prices recently is because there is relatively little competition in so many places and on so many routes. When you don’t have much competition, the airlines can raise prices and charge more.

You live in Seattle, Washington State and you want to go to New York ... what are you going to do? You’re not going to walk. It’ll take you a week to drive.

You really have to fly. You don’t have a lot of choices. You have to take the airlines and you take the ones that are available at the time when you need to go.

That’s the problem all across the country and we see that with increasing concentration across the board. It’s part of the reason why there’s real concern from the US Justice Department and many advocates about increasing airline mergers because the more consolidated the industry gets, the less competition there’s going to be.

What impact do you hope your book will have?

I really hope my book helps people realise that the conventional wisdom that air travel just works how it works and there’s nothing we can do about it is wrong, and that the reasons we have the irritations of flying are because of public policy choices that we’ve made in the past and that we can make different choices and fix flying to make it less miserable, more enjoyable and have a more resilient, stable industry in the process. – The Seattle Times/Tribune News Service

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