Anyone who thought air travel can only improve must be jarred by events in recent weeks. Rising fuel prices and fares, flight delays, bankruptcies, maintenance backlogs and potential consolidation in the industry make the prospect of flying a depressing thought well beyond the usual hectic summer travel period. The airlines have their share of the blame. So does the Federal Aviation Administration, which under the Bush administration turned a Clinton-era policy of self-policing into a recipe for regulatory failure. But this misery is in many ways the fruit of cheap and convenient flights that travelers took for granted.
Last week's grounding of hundreds of planes over safety concerns, which caused the cancellation of thousands of flights and inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of travelers, exposed the strains on a system that has maxed out its capacity. It started after whistle-blower inspectors at the FAA complained that their superiors urged them to go soft on inspections, forcing several airlines, first Southwest and then American, to ground planes and check their structural integrity, wiring and other systems.
The disruption to travelers is expected to continue for months as the FAA conducts a broader nationwide audit of airline safety records. Expect more grounded planes and canceled flights. Monday, regulators ordered inspections for some Boeing jets over concerns with landing gear, de-icing systems and oxygen masks used by crew and passengers. This stand-down comes as airline capacity reaches an all-time high, even as fuel costs and add-on charges for luggage rise.
Consumers wanted it both ways and failed to recognize that the combination of low fares, choice and convenience would force the airlines to scrimp on maintenance, new investment and customer service. But with fuel costs rising for the foreseeable future, and with last week's cancellations reflecting a drift away from safety, air travel has to set a new course. That will require new behavior from the government, the airlines and the flying public.
The FAA needs to force the airlines to comply with its safety directives in a more timely manner. A schedule for repairs and site inspections by FAA inspectors should help prevent the sort of mass chaos caused by grounding a fleet overnight. Congress needs to fund the FAA adequately and help the nation's airports meet their demands. The public should prepare to pay more for better service and safety. More carriers may pursue consolidation, as Northwest and Delta announced Monday, to reduce fuel, labor and other costs. That may drive down choice and limit cut-rate fares. But the first priority needs to be safety — and ensuring it without causing the system to collapse.