Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is going to create a panel to “to restore health to the ailing airline industry,” the Associated Press reports.
The airlines, which keep pointing out that they didn’t get any federal stimulus money, want the government to fully fund the NextGen air traffic control system. But that’s not going to be enough.
The government has to step in to make sure that cut-throat competition on fares doesn’t endanger the safety of passengers. And that means a lot of people have to accept things they don’t want to:
Passengers will have to accept higher fares. Rock-bottom airfares simply don’t support a network of experienced, well-rested pilots, ground crews and air traffic controllers. I love a bargain, and I’ll get one when I can, but fares have to rise so that crews can be paid a decent wage, equipment can be maintained and technology can be upgraded. (What passengers shouldn’t have to accept is cattle-car treatment and abandonment on the tarmac.)
Airline executives will have to accept lower pay. Like the wayward bankers and Wall Street spendthrifts before them, airline executives can’t expect to keep raking in hundreds of millions when their employees are suffering and their companies are faltering.
Airline employees will probably have to accept more job losses, and that’s a shame because they’ve been through plenty already. But when fares go up — as they must — traffic will probably drop off again. (What they shouldn’t have to accept is lower pay.)
Airline employee unions will have to accept that the industry will never again be quite what it was. Alleviating the danger posed by $16,000-a -year pilots in regional jets will not guarantee the return of $300,000-a-year jobs in the cockpit.
What the panel might want to do is study the airline that is doing best in this wretched economic mess, and that is, of course, Southwest. Its employees are among the best-compensated and its executives among the lowest-paid in the industry. Passengers routinely rate it as the best in customer service. Its fares are not the lowest in every case but they are always moderate.
The legacy airlines have shown again and again that they can’t emulate this model voluntarily. But some of what Southwest does can be forced on them if they want government help, and a cap on executive salaries would be a good place to start.