I went up to Boston last week to speak to a class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was an executive education class as part of their aviation program. Others on the program, in addition to a series of impressive academic and industry folks, included FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, former Air Canada CEO Montie Brewer and president of the pilots union at Delta, Capt. Lee Moak. In fact, the four of us formed a panel at the end of the day; after we had each given our lectures.
I must admit I was a little intimidated. Not because of the audience or the other speakers; but because it was at MIT! Even my mom was impressed when I told her (and Randy admitted his would have been too). But I got my adrenaline under control and had a lot of fun.
My main point was this: airline deregulation in 1978 was passed with the passenger in mind. In 1978 only one-quarter of all city pair routes were flown by two or more carriers. There was very little competition and prices were high, beyond the reach of many middle class families. One of the leaders in the Senate in the fight for deregulation was Sen. Ted Kennedy, to the liberals it was a pro-consumer issue (one of his top aides on that bill was Stephen Breyer, now a Justice on the US Supreme Court). It was thought that deregulating airlines economically would benefit passengers. Airports were an after-thought; just a facility.
In terms of price and competition that has happened, no doubt it. Much to the consternation of airlines, who are looking for ways to increase the price through the use of fees and who are trying to reduce competition by attempting to impede airports wanting to build projects and promote air service.
But in terms of taking care of the passenger, it is airports that have filled a breach left by the airlines. When there are delays and cancellations, it is airports that step up to meet passengers needs. During the volcanic ash event earlier this year, airports stepped up to provide places to rest, food, water; even showers and clean underwear. While airlines are looking to find new fees to charge (the latest: “peak” travel fees, meaning any summer day, as well as a fee to move up in line) airports were stepping to the plate to meet passenger needs.
I said earlier that years ago, airports were just seen as facilities (“a ceiling, 4 walls and some doors” as one airline CEO once said to me), while airlines were the drivers in customer service. Today, it is the reverse, airlines just provide the facility (the tube with wings) and it is airports who care for the passenger.