Airline re-regulation won't fly - for now. But some new rules on safety are proposed
About a month ago, Royce Yudkoff was taking an Eastern Airlines flight from Boston to Tampa, Fla. As he boarded, he noticed that the first 12 to 15 rows were cordoned off so no one could sit in them. As it turned out, the front emergency exit was not working, and Eastern had come to an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that if it didn't use the front rows, it could still fly the plane. Mr. Yudkoff said the experience ``horrified'' him. His job as a management consultant requires him to fly the not-so-friendly skies three times a week. ``What really concerns me is if airlines allow slipshod maintenance on things you can see, what is the state of things you can't see?''Skip to next paragraph
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Yudkoff is one of many passengers who think airline deregulation has gotten out of hand. It's gone beyond inconvenience: ``There are going to be safety problems,'' he says, and that could cause the government to start re-regulating the airline industry.
Some new safety regulations were proposed Saturday by Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole. They would limit airspace around busy airports and require anticollision devices on more aircraft.
``Economic re-regulation is not in the cards,'' says Steven Hilton, an aide to Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri, who has taken a lead in aviation legislation.
But safety re-regulation? That's another matter, says economist Alfred Kahn, who as head of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in 1978 masterminded deregulation. If re-regulation means ``the government doing the things it should always have been doing all through these years,'' he says, ``then clearly there is a need.'' Increased staffing and better technology to cope with the volume of air traffic and passengers are two of these things.
``But that's not re-regulation,'' Dr. Kahn says. That's the government fulfilling its responsibilities.''
For months, soaring consumer complaints and a spate of near-collisions by some of the nation's most esteemed airlines have built pressure on Congress to act. The fatal Northwest Airlines crash last week in Detroit may be a catalyst for such action.
Legislators ``don't want to legislate on the basis of one accident,'' says an aide to the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation. ``But that's what they'll be hearing about when they're home'' on recess. He thinks pressure at home will prompt Congress to pass some new laws regulating airline service and safety when it reconvenes this fall.
But these laws will probably be limited to getting the airlines to report delays and having federal regulators monitor air safety.
Secretary Dole said her proposals were not a result of the Detroit crash. In one of those proposals, the FAA would create nine new terminal control areas, or TCAs, to increase the number of airports protected by restricted airspace. TCAs are now in effect at some two dozen major airports.
Also, Mrs. Dole directed the FAA to review the possibility of requiring all aircraft seating more than 10 people to install collision avoidance equipment.
The question of whether the airline industry needs more, or less, regulation is a topic of serious debate. Proponents of deregulation say the regulatory system would be better off in private hands, which would be quicker to put in new technologies to make airways safer, and would be more responsive to customer complaints. Others say the government has a legitimate surveillance role in the airways, and that more, not less, vigilance is needed.
The rebirth of an industry
A brand new industry was born in 1978, when the government ceded some powers to the marketplace. Until then, the CAB determined who could start an airline, what routes airlines could serve, and what fares they could charge. The industry then tried to chart a course through its newfound freedom. Prices dropped as competition intensified: In the last nine years, 198 new airlines tried their wings. Only 37 survived, and recently, prices have begun to creep up in some markets as fledgling carriers closed shop or were bought by larger airlines.
This has led some critics to charge that today's passengers have the worst of both worlds: rising prices, fewer choices (than when the number of competitors was at its peak in 1984), and deteriorating service. But Kahn says such an interpretation ``ignores the benefits'' that still exist.