One of my favorite movies is the 1980s comedy slapstick Airplane! During one scene in the movie, it goes through a montage of newspaper headlines and television newscasters discussing the ongoing situation faced by the characters on an airliner over the United States.
The last clip is of a husky political commentator who chimes in, “They bought their tickets, they knew what they were getting into! I say, let ‘em crash.”
Now rest assured, my topic for the day is not crashing airliners—we’ve had enough of that for a few decades—but rather the financial crash of airline companies. This is basically all we’ve heard since the September 11 attacks, airline whiners discussing on television how badly they’ve been hurt and how much they need the government to bail them out. So far, US Airways and most recently United Airlines have filed for bankruptcy protection.
I keep hearing on the news how it’s imperative that the government save the airlines, and each time I find myself compelled to yell at the television because I know, as they know, that this isn’t about 9/11. No, it’s about companies that can’t make a profit trying to stay alive in spite of their failure. These are companies that, in fact, were making little profit if any at all before the September 11 attacks threw a few more nails into their coffins.
Now, I recognize the importance of air travel as much as anybody else but I seem to have noticed something very interesting about its American iteration that most people seem to gloss over: our air travel industry is CROWDED.
While most countries have one major airline, sometimes two, and rarely three, the United States has a significantly higher number than every other country in the world. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, US Airways, Delta, United, Southwest, Northwest, Continental, AirTran, and JetBlue are only the major ones. It’s hard to get ahead when you’re nestled in with so many other companies trying to do the same thing, isn’t it?
US Airways and United would seem to think so.
What I don’t understand is why we’re all so hung up on the idea that an airline or two going out of business would be a bad thing. It’s happened before (remember Eastern Airlines? TWA?) and I think we’re still doing okay. Welcome to the free market economy, make a profit or get out of the way. That’s how it works in every other industry, why not apply it to the airlines as well?
After all, it’s common for a developed industry to have the number of players dwindle with time. Look at all the mergers of car companies, now there’s only two American car companies left (operating under a lot of names). There used to be a myriad of computer manufacturers and now there are only a handful of big sellers. There used to be probably thousands of record companies, and now it’s pretty much just Universal Music Group, Bertelsmann, and Warner (again, all with multiple label names). Whooptie doo!
I’ll tell you what a major reason is for all this “save the airlines” hullabaloo. Small town airports—like Lynchburg’s goofy little one, for example—are often served by a small number of airlines. In some cases there are only one or two of them. If those airlines and their routes were to disappear, it would cripple travel in and out of those small fields.
But there are a few glaring flaws in that logic. First, if the route is profitable I guarantee the nation’s other airlines aren’t going to just sit by and say, “Aw, shucks, Continental doesn’t fly that route anymore, that sucks.” No, they’re going to jump in and say, “Hey! Pissed off Continental doesn’t fly from Lynchburg to Atlanta anymore? Come fly Delta, we’ll do it instead!” It’s called economics people, if there’s profit to be made somebody will try to make it.
Second, the little airports where it really matters aren’t usually served by major airlines. Yes, I know, the freaky turboprop planes have big “Delta Express” or “United Express” or whatever painted on them, but they’re in fact operated by smaller airline companies under contract and license with the national carrier. That’s right, you’re usually flying “ATA Airlines” or some unknown like that. So, in many cases either the small carriers will continue to fly the routes on their own without national-carrier-backing, or they’ll get another carrier to back them, repaint the planes, and still be flying the next day. A flight from Lynchburg to Atlanta being on a different airline or in a differently painted plane is not the end of the world.
But most importantly is the third glaring logic flaw: Some of these goofy little airports don’t warrant or deserve the attention and flight-load that they get. Let’s be honest, if Lynchburg didn’t have any flights anymore and their airport shut down, some people would have to drive a WHOLE HOUR to Roanoke. Gasp. Horror. Worst case scenario, they have to drive a little over three hours to Washington Dulles Airport here in Northern Virginia or about the same distance to Raleigh Durham in North Carolina. I’m sure you can hear the sad violins playing for the people of Lynchburg.
Yes, I admit, it may be an inconvenience if the number of flights over the United States to and from these small towns and cities were to decrease, I’m so sorry. But you know what? It’s an inconvenience that Lynchburg doesn’t have a decent mall either. Shall the federal government subsidize Small Town Mall development? No? Then why should they do the same thing for the airlines?
Once before a transportation system in this country became bogged down with debt and a lack of profitability. The government decided that, because it was in the national interest, they would bail the industry out. Then, it was the passenger rail system and the outcome was a nationalized train corporation under government management that was called Amtrak. Today, they are still losing money and draining tax dollars. It’s a bottomless pit that eats money, and with prices that are often higher than that for a comparable airline ticket it does virtually nothing for the people of this country.
If the government were to bail out the airlines, it would have a similarly disastrous outcome. The problems would go unsolved, and the service would continue to degrade. The only solution to the problem airlines face today is to allow their failure. We must allow the free market to eat companies like United Airlines alive, and to foster upstarts like JetBlue who have used their inventiveness to lead them down profitable paths. This has been the recipe for success in countless other industries, and just because this one makes big metal cylinders full of people fly in and out of our cities doesn’t make them any different.
There is no sense in giving a company handouts when it has failed, and if it can’t make a profit that company is indeed a failure. The idea of propping them up with bailouts and assistance is ludicrous. In the long run simply letting them get out of the way by going out of business will be of immense benefit to those who remain in the industry. A thinner airline market will help all of the remaining companies and their consumers, so let’s quit the complainin’ and let the free market do its work.