THE BLOG

Deregulation Despair at 35,000 Feet

02/03/2015 11:33 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2015

We're all hearing more and more complaints about bad airline service. But then, flying has been miserable for years, except for some of the relatively few folks who can afford business or first class.

Back in the '70s, as Americans started to fly much more, there was a push to deregulate airlines. The idea was that this would encourage more competition that would, in turn, lower prices. And indeed prices fell for a while.

But deregulation also reduced service quality - except for safety. In fact, as unpleasant as these airborne cattle cars have become, flying has until recently been safer than ever, because of technology and heightened security. Now, however, ever-tighter seating might cause a pulmonary-embolism epidemic.

Deregulation also slashed service to smaller cities and, as airlines created giant new hub systems, it got a lot harder to get direct flights to and from mid-size cities. That's especially where, as at such airports as Rhode Island's T.F. Green, politicians for years delayed lengthening runways to please some loud locals. (They're finally extending a runway at Green, and starting regular international flights out of it.)

Meanwhile, the World Wide Web let airlines dump a lot more work on their passengers, who now must deal with an extreme complexity of flight options on their computers. Schedules and pricing, like taxes and much else in America, have become far too complicated. (Read "The Paradox of Choice,'' by Barry Schwartz.)

When it comes to flying, most Americans are willing sheep as long as they think they can find a cheap flight. But whatever the original aim of deregulation to boost competition, we're down to four airlines - American, Delta, Southwest and United - controlling 85 percent of domestic flights and in a better position than ever to gouge us, through higher ticket prices and fat new baggage and other fees. The old regulated, orderly and predictable airline system is looking better and better.

See here.

The happy valley of "choice'' via late '70s deregulation has paradoxically led to fewer choices and much less enjoyable travel. And a lot of us miss such quaint carriers as Mohawk Airlines that could take us to, say, about a dozen cities in upstate New York.

My colleague Froma Harrop has written eloquently about the case in which Manhattanite Thomas Gilbert Jr. allegedly shot to death his father, Thomas Gilbert Sr., after the latter had reportedly tried to cut his subsidy of his troubled son. See here.

What struck me was the pressure that the older Mr. Gilbert apparently felt to keep up with the Joneses of New York's mercantile aristocracy. Not only was the estate that he reportedly left ($1.6 million) astonishingly paltry for someone in his crowd, with his Beekman Place and East Hampton residences, but he was working seven-day weeks at age 70 to pump up a tiny ($7 million) hedge fund.

And why is it that so many of these people see Wall Street as the only socially acceptable way to make money? Indeed, Thomas Jr. wanted to start a hedge fund himself (even as the giant fees asked by them are increasingly turning off investors). It seems somehow connected with his sense of entitlement.

Then there's New York House Speaker Sheldon Silver, who's accused of raking in millions of dollars in illegal referral income for a law firm from rich oncologist Robert Taub in return for Speaker Silver sending state money to Dr. Taub's cancer center. See here.

The New York Times reported that the exasperated Dr. Taub got Speaker Silver to get his son Jonathan a job because he (according to acquaintances) allegedly was more interested in "playing bass guitar and blogging his right-leaning political views than in finding a permanent job.'' (I thought that right-wingers believed in the importance of work.)

The sort of outcome of last Sunday's Greek elections, in which a leftist, anti-austerity party won, probably couldn't happen in the U.S. because most poor people don't bother voting here.

Perhaps McDonald's would be doing better financially if the people running McDonald's and other big companies were willing to share more of their profits with their workers so they could afford to eat out more often. Extreme income inequality hurts businesses like McDonald's.

Winter in the Northeast's cities may have its attractions (fresher than in the warm weather) but the nearby ocean means that the wind, funneling between the high-rises, often makes us feel colder than we do in Vermont and New Hampshire. There, the dry cold, bright skies and mountains can be exhilarating.

The heart, to me, of this winter joy are Appalachian Mountain Club lodges, with their big fireplaces and smart and friendly people. They give winter a good name that's hard to find on the dreary streets of Boston, Providence and New York.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is a Providence-based writer and editor and a partner in Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com), a healthcare-sector consultancy. He and others blog at www.newenglanddiary.com. A former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and a former editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal, he is a Fellow at the Pell Center for International relations and Public Policy.