Ten years ago this fall, Congress freed the airline industry from the tight grip of federal regulation. Instead of the Civil Aeronautics Board controlling fares, routes, and schedules, the airlines were allowed to determine how and where they would do business.
By most measurements, deregulation has been a resounding success. Air fares have fallen an average of 25 percent, even adjusted for inflation and increased fuel costs. The number of passengers has nearly doubled, from about 250 million in 1978 to 450 million in 1988. In the next 10 years, the numbers are expected to rise to 700 million.The expansion necessary to cope with this growth has meant 76,000 new jobs and 45,000 new part-time positions. And despite publicity surrounding crashes and near-collisions, there actually has been an improvement in the safety record.
At the same time, deregulation has not been entirely comfortable. The competition has caused some airlines to founder and others to keep the lid on wages and benefits.
In addition, the very success of deregulation has brought its own set of problems. Airports are crowded with planes and passengers, schedules are jammed, delays affect more people, and the chances of problems are increased. And there aren't enough air traffic controllers - due both to growth in the number of flights and the wholesale firing of controllers in the 1982 illegal walkout.
Yet these difficulties ought not to be used as an excuse to go back to more federal regulation, as some in Congress have suggested.
To avoid the specter of federal control, the industry itself can do a number of things to ease the crowding.
First, airlines must spread out flight schedules instead of trying to cram everything into certain favored time slots. Second, more intensive inspection and maintenance programs can spot trouble before it interferes with scheduled flights.
More air traffic controllers must be hired and trained. This is being done, but it simply takes time. Whether the process could be speeded up by privatizing the air traffic control system is an idea worth examining.
And more airports need to be expanded and upgraded, possibly with additional airports constructed. No major new airport has been built since 1974 and only two new ones are planned in the next few years.
In sum, problems exist, but they are largely problems that have arisen from the success of deregulation. The answers must be found in that same deregulation - not by turning back the clock to government control.