Many say the challenges facing aviation today are “unprecedented.” But while fuel has reached price levels worthy of that word, the range of challenges are hardly “unprecedented.” Fifteen years ago this week, a blue ribbon presidential commission began 90 days of intense work (the problems were deemed so serious that work had to finish in 90 days — there was no time to lose). The commission was formed after a series of airline bankruptcies (Pan Am, Eastern and Braniff). Concern was deepened by, among other things, fear of terrorism (Pan Am 103, the bombing of the World Trade Center in February, fallout from a war in Iraq) and fuel prices that had spiked. Is this all starting to sound familiar?
Meetings were nearly all covered on C-SPAN. Membership was first rate: CEO’s of Southwest Airlines and United Technologies. Labor leaders. Felix Rohatyn, the financial wizard who saved New York City in the 70’s. Former high ranking government officials. Representatives from airports, cargo, general aviation and the financial world. It was called, hopefully, “The National Commission to Ensure a Strong Competitive Airline Industry.” I was Executive Director.
One thing we found was the industry has struggled constantly. President Truman formed a similar commission in 1947. There were others in the interim, and there have been others since. Most expected the panel to recommend government handouts. They were disappointed.
What was recommended? Air traffic control modernization, increased capacity on the ground and market expansion were the major recommendations. Others focused on the aviation workforce, federal tax and regulatory policies and issues such as bankruptcy law. But the major ones involved increased capacity in the air and on the ground, as well as market expansion.
There has been good progress on market expansion, but not nearly enough on capacity expansion. Airports have been in the forefront of all three issues for many years, even when others in the industry were less interested. We will continue to push proposals in all those areas because they will result in fewer delays and more opportunities for our passengers and for the airlines themselves. They remain the best road to a “Strong Competitive Airline Industry.”