What Has Government Done to Aviation?

This week’s blog post was prompted by a flight confirmation I received which included a fare breakdown that immediately caught my attention. Believe it or not, more than half of the total fare consisted of “taxes, fees and surcharges”, including a “customs user fee”, “immigration user fee”, “federal transportation tax”, an “international surcharge” and even a “September 11th security fee” – I know, you can’t make this stuff up.

AviationAll of these added up to about 51 percent of the total cost of the flight, meaning that without these ridiculous costs – none of which are imposed by the airlines of course – one could literally book two flights for the price of one. Talk about a highly regulated industry!

With so many people traveling all over the globe, most of us are all too familiar with the nuisance called modern air travel. Having to show up at the airport hours prior to your flight, standing in lengthy lines to go through security while running the risk of getting selected for additional screening if a staff member takes offence to the frustrated look on your face, getting yelled at by security personnel, having dogs sniff your bags as if you’re some sort of drug trafficker or suspected “terrorist”, having to show your papers to complete strangers in uniform, having other complete strangers scrutinize your personal belongings; it is safe to say the air traveler is a heavily oppressed species. S/he is subjected to severe stress, put at the mercy of the goodwill of uniformed government employees with no incentive or obligation to treat them nicely – or even fairly – and assumed guilty until proven innocent.

Again, keep in mind that airlines have nothing to do with any of the above; they neither invented the rules nor do they enforce them in any way, shape or form. Like us air travelers, they are mere victims of government regulation, scaring away their (potential) customers with every negative airport “security” experience. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that of all industries, aviation is probably most frequently and severely victimized by government policy. After all, geo-political events like 9/11, which according to the hijackers themselves was a direct result of government policy (read military interventionism), had a direct negative effect on air travel. However temporary, such events undeniably act as a deterrent for a great number of travelers.

There are other, more direct ways in which government policy hurts the airlines’ bottom line too. Every single time government mandates that another layer be added to the security theater, further invading people’s privacy and quite possibly even harming their health (naked body scanners, anyone?), the industry loses those would-be customers that wish to keep their dignity and protect their health. Add to that the steady stream of TSA crimes and abuses and the demand for air travel decreases further. At the same time, the additional cost is passed on to the consumer, who ends up not only paying higher air fares but also footing the bill for the extra government workers.

It should be remembered, though, that apart from checking your baggage you generally don’t see any airline personnel until you get to your gate. As private businesses, airlines obviously rely on happy customers for their continued existence and financial viability. Granted, the enormous amount of red tape the industry finds itself wrapped in by government hardly makes for a free market, but the profit motive remains intact. Consequently, the customer is king and the airline employee his servant. The next time you fly, pay close attention to the friendly  attitude displayed by airline staff members as compared to that of the so-called security personnel.

Now try to imagine a truly free market in aviation in which the customer is king all of the time rather than just sometimes. In that scenario, it would be up to the airlines to hire private security firms if need be. We might see different airlines offer different levels of security based on consumer demand. Those travelers who would readily sacrifice their privacy for a little more security would be free to choose the airline that meets their wishes while those that value their privacy more could opt for an airline with more lenient security measures, or none at all. The frequent flyer programs that are already in place could also be used to assess the security risk a traveler poses to other travelers, individualizing and enhancing the travel experience. The possibilities, tailored to consumer demand, are endless but one thing is for sure: contrary to what is considered normal today, no traveler would be forced to undergo a government-mandated minimum level of harassment

Needless to say, these are just some suggestions hinting at what might conceivably happen. It is impossible to predict exactly what would unfold if the government got out of aviation altogether. Chances are some innovative entrepreneur(s) would revolutionize the marketplace just like the mobile phone and personal computer industries have been revolutionized, propelling humanity into a new travel era.

The only way we will ever find out is by ending all government involvement in our travels.

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