Grounded planes

[11 April 2008]

By Rob Horning

There’s all sorts of chaos at American airports right now mainly because American Airlines had to ground a bunch of planes over a particular flaw in a particular jet model. This juxtaposition in the NYT report seems telling:

American’s chief executive, Gerard J. Arpey, tried to address concerns, saying that the inspections were no cause for alarm.
“Irrespective of F.A.A. oversight, no one would put a plane in service that wasn’t safe,” he told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I put my kids on these airplanes all the time.”
The White House also tried to assure passengers that planes were safe.
“Right now, we have a very safe airline transportation system,” a White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel, said. “That is not by accident. That is due to the work of the F.A.A. and the airlines to make sure that safety is first and foremost front of mind.”

What a curious coincidence that a Texas company and a Texas president should be spinning this instance of reckless endangerment on the part of business. This is pure irresponsible innuendo, but would anyone be shocked to discover that the FAA had been stocked with Bush cronies who believe regulatory agencies’ primary function is to help business evade regulation and make more money? And that only increased congressional oversight ended the party?

Reading about this unfolding crisis, and thinking about the unpleasantness of taking any flight (it’s almost worse than the bus, at this point, and rife with at least as many indignities) tempts one to become nostalgic about the old days when airlines were heavily regulated and air travel was a true luxury good. Every trip was made somewhat special by the high price of tickets, and the airline service was apparently geared toward making the trip feel like a stay in a high-end hotel. Protected against competition (and protected against having to drive downmarket, sacrificing everything to low price in order to maximize customer volume), the airlines may have been lazy about being efficient, but the arrangement imposed discipline on travelers, who had to choose much more carefully where to go and what to blow their travel budget on.

Air travel now become a good that’s vaguely similar to homeownership, with air travel presented as almost an end in itself, a “right” that should be extended to everyone by making it affordable—in other words, by cutting corners on safety, diminishing service quality, implementing confusing and highly discriminatory pricing schemes (i.e. you pay whatever you are tricked into paying as true prices disappear into a haze of promotional flim-flam and frequent flier discounts). Everyone shouldn’t expected to travel by air, anymore than everyone shouldn’t automatically expect to own real estate. There are other ways to travel, and other ways to secure shelter, that suit the variety of situations people find themselves in.

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