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Can a return to regulation fix the U.S. airlines?

Artist Christopher M. Still’s 11- by 17-foot mural Final Boarding Call, 
commissioned by Tampa International Airport in 2005, hangs in Airside C.

Artist Christopher M. Still’s 11- by 17-foot mural Final Boarding Call, commissioned by Tampa International Airport in 2005, hangs in Airside C.

The wall-sized mural Final Boarding Call at Tampa International makes you nostalgic for the golden days of aviation.

There's the couple's tearful embrace at planeside (no screening lines!). A baggage handler pushing his cart in a sparkling white jumpsuit. A passenger waving while climbing down the plane's rear steps to the tarmac.

You can't blame travelers who pine for a simpler, more civilized flying experience. Some politicians and airline veterans, however, are looking into the past to pluck out a solution to today's airline mess: a return to government regulation.

Thirty years ago, Congress voted to get Uncle Sam out of the business of deciding which airlines flew what routes and how much they could charge. That opened the door for low-cost upstarts like Southwest and JetBlue to challenge traditional carriers with cheaper fares.

Former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall contends the downside outweighed the good. He wrote in the New York Times in April that deregulation helped make U.S. airlines "laggards in every category, including fleet age, service quality and international reputation."

Crandall doesn't want to turn the clock all the way back. But airlines need to be kept from driving one another over the brink. His idea? The government should set minimum fares and let carriers charge more for connecting flights through a hub than a nonstop flight to the same destination.

While airlines were more stable under the government's wing, flying was restricted to businessmen and the well-to-do. In the 1970s, fewer than 20 percent of Americans flew regularly. In 2006, just over half the population took at least one flight.

Re-regulation won't fix cyclical economic downturns or beat back record fuel prices plaguing the industry, says Robert Mann, an airline consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. "The industry will innovate," he says. "But everyone won't be a winner."

Former airline executive Michael E. Levine says carriers are making the right moves to deal with fuel costs — now about 40 percent of their expenses — by cutting flights and raising fares.

"A lot of people think you can stop the movie and go back," says Levine, a researcher and lecturer at New York University's law school. "But that requires the government to understand what's going on better than the companies that are doing it every day and living with the consequences."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Can a return to regulation fix the U.S. airlines? 07/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 11:47am]
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