White House officials announced new rules last week aimed at mitigating travel headaches such as flight delays, hidden fees and lost bags. That's good news, to be sure. But while one-off rulemaking can treat symptoms, our passenger aviation system will continue to fall far short of its full potential until Washington commits to a comprehensive treatment plan for the root cause of the problem: the dominance of a few big airlines, which has led to a steady decline in connectivity and consumer choices.
Today, just four carriers control about 85 percent of seat capacity in America. That in itself is not a catastrophe--except for the facts that 1) the big airlines have become increasingly homogenized in terms of their policies on things like ancillary fees; 2) growing airline consolidation has resulted in significant service cuts to secondary markets like Memphis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh; and 3) there remain significant barriers for new carriers to enter U.S. markets--and the major carriers have done their level best to keep those barriers in place.
To tackle these challenges, we need more than just transparency. Allowing more players into the aviation market could pressure carriers to improve conditions for their customers in a number of ways--lower fares and more legroom, for instance. But just as importantly, a more diverse carrier landscape would help create more routes and restore air service at small and medium-hub airports, which has dropped considerably in the past ten years, putting more stress on already-congested large hubs.
What can the U.S. government do right now to alleviate these problems and keep our aviation system from limping behind the rest of the world?
To start, it can protect and strengthen our Open Skies agreements with other countries, in order to allow new routes and more carrier choices for American flyers. In particular, lawmakers and the administration should approve Norwegian Air International's request to operate flights to and from the U.S. Additionally, they need to keep our country's aviation market open to the entry of new carriers from abroad, and not acquiesce to demands to keep them out.
Second, we need more gates, more terminal space, and easier airport accessibility for both planes and passengers in order to encourage airlines to expand air service. We also need the funding mechanism to finance such projects; unfortunately, investments in our airports have fallen dramatically behind the rest of the world, and Congress, as with so many things, is deadlocked on how to find the necessary means to reverse that trend. A new administration and Congress will have many chances to consider new funding mechanisms for much-needed improvements to travel and airport infrastructure, including new FAA reauthorization legislation--a chance we should all hope they seize on in the next year.
This is not to say I am ungrateful, by any means, for the federal government's latest moves to address problems with air travel. The Obama administration clearly understands the importance of these issues, and has taken first steps towards addressing the most common complaints about the American flying experience--frustrations that greatly impact both travelers' lives and the U.S. economy.
A well-functioning, well-connected and well-maintained aviation system is crucial to the health of the economy as well as the ease of travel to and within our country--but this cannot be accomplished without broad attention to disturbing trends in the U.S. aviation market. These new rules announced by the White House are a step in the right direction, but they should spark discussions about addressing the core issues affecting the air travel experience in America: the lack of capacity, air service and connectivity that contributes to headaches like flight delays and lost bags. Both the new Congress and our next president have their part to play in this.