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Policymakers should avoid temptation of subjecting airlines to more regulations

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On Thursday, members of the House Subcommittee on Aviation and the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovations will hold hearings focused on improving the travel experience for airline passengers. If history, as well as personal experience, is any indicator, the committees’ goals should be prioritizing policies that will improve flying for everyone without sacrificing the industry’s strong safety record. 

That includes making sure government regulations don’t trip up operations. Unfortunately, the federal government is notorious for derailing even the best laid plans. 

As my wife and I prepare to celebrate our 49th anniversary in Europe next week, we’ve been frustrated by a bureaucratic slow-down regarding an online passport renewal initiated in January. It’s supported by additional fees for “expedited” handling. Now, two months later, and after more than a dozen hours waiting on hold, we were just surprised with an email saying the passport was shipped — but if it doesn’t arrive in a week or two to check back. A tracking number was provided, but so far it does not work. I guess we’re making progress.

It’s a frustration many Americans are currently facing, and should act as a reminder to lawmakers that the government often creates more problems than it solves.

History also provides a guiding light and a valuable case study for subcommittee members to consider.

In 1978, Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act, ushering in a new era for air travel. Under the new law, government price controls on airfare were eliminated, private industry took the reins on determining routes — often adding new ones — and more airlines were encouraged to enter the market. By fostering competition and giving airlines the runway to innovate, the bipartisan legislation — signed into law by President Carter — was a major success. 

Subsequently, the airline industry — which had been struggling through an economic downturn, high fuel prices, and a host of other challenges — thrived.

As someone who was helping lead the charge to lift government regulations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shortly thereafter, I saw the positive impacts unfold in real time. Increased competition led to more jobs that stimulated economic activity. And for passengers, ticket prices plummeted, making air travel — once considered a luxury — more accessible to millions of Americans. 

Fast forward to today. Compared to the late 1970s, the average round trip domestic fare has dropped by half. And the industry is now responsible for more than one trillion dollars in economic activity annually, or roughly five percent of U.S. GDP. Not to mention airlines and their partners help to connect 2.3 million flyers every day to family, friends, and colleagues. 

But it seems some policymakers have been hit with a case of amnesia. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have forgotten the progress triggered by deregulating airlines. Government red tape is once again creeping back into the industry, threatening the huge improvements that have been made. 

For example, the Biden administration is waging a pressure campaign against airlines to eliminate so-called “junk fees” — a misleading term used to describe simply charging people for a provided service. Similarly, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently penned a letter to congress expressing concern that airlines do not guarantee certain seating arrangements for children for free. 

Rather than chasing new regulations and restrictions that could compromise the industry, officials should be exploring how to make travel easier, safer, and quicker. To that end, leaders should focus on modernizing Air Traffic Control technology — something the FAA has been promising to do since the 1980s — shoring up agency staffing to minimize itinerary disruptions, and prioritizing investments for Federal Aviation Administration capital programs.  

Taking to the skies is the safest, most efficient mode of transportation that exists. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill and Biden administration officials should be working to preserve that track record while giving airlines the runway to improve the experience for passengers. As history suggests, more regulations will get in the way. 

Jeffrey H. Joseph served as head of domestic policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from 1982 to 1997. He is an adjunct professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Tags Air traffic control air travel Airfares Airline baggage fees Airline deregulation Airline fees Airline industry Airlines FAA Federal Aviation Administration Flight Cancellations Flight delays flying Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg U.S. airline industry

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