When Southwest Airlines underwent a historic meltdown during the Christmas travel season, canceling nearly 17,000 flights and stranding 2 million passengers, politicians pounced like passengers on a second bag of free peanuts. If the federal government only had more control over air travel, they shouted, we could have avoided such a terrible situation.
Yet just a few days later, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air traffic control, caused a system-wide travel stoppage affecting all airlines, the same pols denouncing Southwest mostly went missing, like Amelia Earhart.
There's an important lesson in all this: Companies fail, but those responsible usually pay a high price for screwing up. When government agencies fail, not so much.
As the Southwest debacle unfolded, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg hit cable news and talked about jawboning the airline's CEO, telling CNN, "I made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and to make sure that this can't happen again."
No fewer than 15 senators, including Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), sent a letter to Southwest demanding answers as to why the airline once best known for low fares and leading passengers in song had ruined the holidays for millions of travelers. Warren went further still, insisting that Southwest's failure meant that a planned merger between low-cost carrier Spirit and JetBlue needed to be put on ice faster than the champagne in first class.
There's no question that Southwest screwed up royally, mostly because it relies on antiquated, low-tech crew-scheduling software and because its leadership has lost focus on customer satisfaction since its late, legendary founder Herb Kelleher retired more than a decade ago.
It is already being punished by customers and investors—losing more than a projected billion dollars. It has squandered an incalculable amount of customer goodwill that it built up since first taking flight in 1971. CEO Bob Jordan will be stuck in the equivalent of a middle seat surrounded by screaming babies for the foreseeable future:
But what about the FAA? When its Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) system, which gives pilots information about flights, crashed due to a corrupted file, the agency halted all domestic air travel, triggering 1,700 cancellations and 9,000 delays that screwed up air travel for days.
Secretary Buttigieg has pledged to get to the bottom of it all and update the system with the enthusiasm and single-mindedness of a Transportation Security Administration agent confiscating your toenail clippers. Looking forward to the next FAA reauthorization bill, he says that he's going to make sure the FAA "has everything they need in terms of systems, resources, and staff."
Don't expect much to happen anytime soon. Rep. Pete Stauber (R–Minn.) introduced legislation to modernize the NOTAM system in 2019 and 2021, but it ultimately went nowhere. And when it comes to the air traffic control system that actually governs all takeoffs and landings, the FAA has been de-icing its wings for decades. As Reason Foundation analyst Marc Scribner points out, the FAA is "about two decades behind" other countries when it comes to directing air traffic.
Back in 2009, Reason produced a video about how Canada and other countries had privatized air traffic control and saw delays decrease and safety increase. In the U.S., we're still stuck in the olden days.
What would actually produce safer, cheaper, and less-disrupted air travel? More deregulation of the sort that took place in the late 1970s, under the auspices of President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D–Mass.), and consumer activist Ralph Nader. Inflation-adjusted ticket prices declined 60 percent between 1980 and 2020, which explains how air travel went from something only businessmen and the wealthy did to common practice. By 2018, 88 percent of Americans had flown on a plane.
But too many aspects of air travel remain under government's inept and stuck-in-the-past control. Foreign-owned airlines are blocked from competing with domestic carriers in the name of national security. The number, placement, and operation of airports are controlled by various levels of government, leading to insane monopolies and fewer flight options in places such as Atlanta, Denver, and Las Vegas.
Even in today's less-than-free market, Southwest will have to fight like hell to win back customers by keeping prices low and performance high. The FAA—and the government more generally—doesn't face the same pressure.
We'll see which one fixes its problems before the next Christmas travel season.
Produced by Nick Gillespie; edited by Danielle Thompson; audio by Ian Keyser.
Photos: Ana Ramirez/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; E. Jason Wambsgans/TNS/Newscom; Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/Newscom; Michael Ho Wai Lee/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Ana Ramirez/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Music: "Oh Christmas Tree" by Falconer via Artlist; "Happy Hour" by Evert Z via Artlist; "Echoes of the Past (Instrumental Version)" by Max Hixon via Artlist
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