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We Need a U.S. National Air Transportation Policy

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Rez O. Lewshun

Save the Profession
Jan 19, 2004
We Need a U.S. National Air Transportation Policy

Nov 17, 2009

Robert L. Crandall and Kevin P. Mitchell

The following "Departures" op-ed appears in the Nov. 17 Aviation Daily
In the 31 years that have elapsed since the U.S. airline industry was deregulated, the industry has lurched from crisis to crisis, and its performance has declined by virtually every measure. Year after year the industry's financial situation grows more desperate, it provides fewer good jobs, its employee relations worsen, its customer service deteriorates and its international competitiveness declines.
While airlines in other countries have had substantial and continuing difficulties, it is clear that America's carriers have declined more precipitously.
Fortunately, the unhappy state of the industry is now attracting some political attention, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has announced formation of "The Federal Advisory Committee on the Future of Aviation." Hopefully, the new group will come up with a keener analysis and more successful proposals than 1993's "Commission to Ensure a Strong and Competitive Airline Industry."
In the run up to the creation of the new committee, Secretary LaHood has invited stakeholders to suggest the five most pressing problems facing the industry. In our judgment, the single most important problem is that the United States has never had an adequately debated and coherent national air transportation policy. To put it another way, we have never bothered to put together what corporate America would call a mission statement or, in simple terms, a definition of the air transportation goals of public policy.

Just what is it we want the airline industry to do? Since 1978, we have behaved as if we want nothing other than the lowest possible fares, and if that is so, we might plausibly claim success. But is that really the case? Are we interested in having a financially sustainable air transportation system and in keeping small and mid-size communities connected to the rest of the country and the world? Do we want our airlines to provide the public with good customer service on modern and optimally maintained fleets? Should our airlines provide well-paid jobs and a secure career for the men and women who service the public at airports, and fly and maintain the aircraft we travel on? Do we want U.S. carriers good enough to compete on the world stage? Do we want to minimize both fuel usage and carbon emissions?
If the answers to those questions are yes, then we need to develop public policy objectives and a framework for effective analysis free of ideological convictions about the virtues of unregulated competition and regulatory oversight.
It should not take a tragedy in Buffalo to teach us that regional airlines that pay pilots very little and do nothing to assure adequate pilot rest are following a business model inconsistent with optimal safety. Nor do we need much analysis to know that sending sophisticated aircraft to lower-wage countries to be overhauled by workers whose backgrounds cannot be verified, who are not tested for drugs and alcohol, who rely on pictures in manufacturers' manuals because they cannot read detailed English instructions and whose oversight by FAA is uneven or non-existent, will not produce optimum maintenance outcomes.
We urge Secretary LaHood to allocate the first two months of the new committee's efforts to debating and forging consensus around transportation and air transportation public policy objectives. We think it is essential that the committee's sessions be open to the press so the public can judge for itself the wisdom of the objectives being decided on.

Let's take advantage of the attention being focused on this key industry to reshape its future in a way that strengthens our economy, benefits our workforce, improves the airline customer experience and enhances our position in international aviation.
Robert L. Crandall is the former Chairman and CEO of American Airlines; Kevin P. Mitchell is Chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.
Photo credit: Chicago Aviation Dept.

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