I moved to Beacon in 2010, and because my job involves travel, one of the considerations in the city’s favor was the proximity to a regional airport. New York Stewart International, located across the river in New Windsor, seemed to offer convenient access to the U.S. air traffic system.
Sure enough, I found that I could connect on American Airlines — through a daily flight to Philadelphia — to many of my most common destinations, such as San Francisco, Toronto and Florida. I accepted the fact that I had only limited options of airlines and flight times and that I had to travel to the Port Authority’s other three airports (LaGuardia, JFK and Newark) for direct flights to most cities such as Austin, Texas, and for international flights to China, France and Ireland.
But then we had the pandemic, and the large carriers, Delta and American, dropped their flights to and from Stewart. Today there are only a handful of airlines operating, and the destinations are limited to a few locations in the U.S. (mostly Florida) and cheap flights to Reykjavik and the Faroe Islands.
And, of course, we are hearing the stories of near misses at airports, vacation snafus as airlines cancel thousands of flights because of too few staff and, most recently, a door “plug” blowing out in midflight. There’s more at stake than the hours wasted driving to JFK to catch a flight to San Francisco.
The situation at Stewart is not unique. The deregulation of the U.S. air travel industry in 1978 has not led to any of the claims its advocates provided in support of dismantling the regulated competition model that had served the country for 40 years, since the 1930s, in which a federal Civil Aeronautics Board allocated routes to airlines, including those to regional airports, and the prices of flights.
Ganesh Sitaraman, a law professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of Why Flying is Miserable and How to Fix It, has said that “all the things that are a problem with flying are a function of public policy choices. We decide as a country that we want children’s toys to be safe, that we want rural places to have electricity service, that we think banks should be able to function reliably. These are public policy choices to regulate or set up systems that advance goals we have as a country. When we have failures in these systems, it’s a function of getting the policies wrong. What I found in doing the research for the book is that everything about what makes flying miserable today is a function of one big public policy choice: the choice to deregulate the airlines in 1978.”
That decision led to the situation we are in now.
“The 1980s were defined by cutthroat competition between the airlines,” Sitaraman has said. “A lot of new entrants offered no-frills service, had no unions and took on the high-volume traffic and high-traffic routes, for example. This initially meant more competition and lower prices on those routes. But the big airlines fought back and pushed out a lot of these new competitors, raised prices afterward, and consolidated into large fortress hubs like Atlanta, Dallas or Charlotte.
“By the end of the decade, after dozens of bankruptcies and mergers, labor-management strife, declining service quality, congestion and lost baggage, there was a shakeout in the airlines that led to reconsolidation. The same big airlines that existed under regulation were still dominant, just without the checks of the regulated period. So, we moved from regulated oligopoly to unregulated oligopoly. Now what we have is more like monopoly capitalism, a system in which there is very little competition and few choices.”
Despite the airlines getting bailed out by the federal government during the pandemic to the tune of $50 billion, the Highlands and even many mid-sized cities such as Dubuque, Iowa, and Toledo, Ohio, have few options for air travel.
The answer is obvious: reregulate the airlines. Sitaraman told The New York Times last month how this could be done: “In big cities, limit any single carrier to 30 percent of the flights. Require the big airlines to serve smaller markets. Require ‘interlining,’ in which airlines honor one another’s tickets if one has a problem. Ban or regulate the offshoring of heavy aircraft maintenance, which is done in countries including China and El Salvador. Mandate minimum seat sizes and protect travelers from involuntary bumping.”
That sounds good to me, especially the second point, which would bring back at least a few daily flights out of Stewart to connector hubs at a reasonable rate. That should be something all Americans would welcome if Congress would come together to enact it.
Behind The Story
Opinion: Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.