I remember back in the ’50s driving my mother to Midway Airport in Chicago for the first leg of a trip that would take her out of the country for the first and only time in her life. She and most of the other passengers dressed up for what for many would be a once in a lifetime trip and for any but the most jaded an exciting adventure.
Something like 75% of the American people when I was growing up back then had ever been more than 50 miles from home. I can still remember a younger brother’s wife in the early ’60s asking if she could drive me to Chicago to catch a flight because she had never been to an airport.
It was a different day. Today airlines carry millions of passengers on hundreds of thousands of flights to just about every corner of the world. Boarding a plane is no longer special, but common. Young, people, seniors and just about everyone else think nothing of seeking out the lowest fare available and jetting off for a weekend on a beach or an overnight trip to see a Broadway play or even a baseball or football game.
Today’s airlines cater not just to the business traveler or high-income tourists, but to just about everyone. And while they do so efficiently, the style of decades past is gone. Today’s passenger might as well be boarding a Greyhound bus, and the familiarity with what was once very special has bred contempt for the industry that provides it.
Today, airline customers complain about the airlines and — even though they get them from one place to another at a fraction of what it cost a decade or so ago — believe almost as a matter of faith that whenever they buy a ticket they are being ripped off. Some airlines have consciously or unconsciously fed this contempt by treating their customers more as a commodity than as customers.
With all that having been said, however, life without the convenience of modern affordable air travel is almost impossible to contemplate for the majority of Americans. The disruption in the ability of Americans to fly where they want whenever they want during the current pandemic underscores the importance of the industry to every American and justifies the Trump administration and Congress’ desire to keep U.S. carriers from going out of business.
It’s not just the jobs in the industry or even the shareholders who are suffering as airline stocks crash, or the fact that the airlines are needed to transport mail, medicines and consumer products from one part of the country to the other. It’s the customers and the fact that when this is over, they are going to want to be able to enjoy life and get from place to place as easily as they could before the shutdown.
The success of America’s airlines is in very large measure a result of the fact that we have never relied on one or two national state-owned airlines that could work with government to protect their profits and discourage private-sector competition.
In this country, private airline companies have been able to compete — especially since a wave of deregulation in the ’70s that loosened regulations that had held them back — and bring affordable airline travel to tens of millions of Americans who had been denied it for so long.
Socialists like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders probably cannot understand the need for such competition; it will be remembered that he once wondered why there was wasteful competition among running shoe manufacturers because he viewed the existence of multiple manufacturers wasteful and confusing to consumers. He and others like him really don’t like corporate independence from government and believe that even if the government can’t get title to large corporations, politicians should be able to decide how they operate.
The proposals currently being bandied about that would give the federal government partial government ownership of the airlines in exchange for the money needed to save them would move us away from the pre-coronavirus world and closer to the utopia the Bernie Sanders of the world envision.
If the president agrees to such a requirement there will be demands that union representatives and maybe global warming advocates be forced onto the airline boards, and we will be on the way to making our now private carriers resemble those of socialist nations that have since discovered that our model works and theirs doesn’t.
The Trump administration should require guarantees that taxpayer money spent to save the industry should be paid back once the crisis ends, but shouldn’t consider conditions that could weaken and eventually destroy their ability to provide the services their customers demand and should be able to expect.
David Keene is an editor at large at the Washington Times and the former chairman of the American Conservative Union.