Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978

| Saturday, August 20, 2011 | 0 comments

Until 1978, the CAB regulated many areas of commercial aviation such as fares, routes, and schedules. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, however, removed many of these controls, thus changing the face of civil aviation in the United States. After deregulation, unfettered free competition ushered in a new era in passenger air travel.

The CAB had three main functions: to award routes to airlines, to limit the entry of air carriers into new markets, and to regulate fares for passengers. Much of the established practices of commercial passenger travel within the United States went back to the policies of Walter Folger Brown, the United States Postmaster General during the administration of President Herbert Hoover. Brown had changed the mail payments system to encourage the manufacture of passenger aircraft instead of mail-carrying aircraft. His influence was crucial in awarding contracts and helped create four major domestic airlines: United, American, Eastern, and Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). Similarly, Brown had also helped give Pan American a monopoly on international routes.
The push to deregulate, or at least to reform the existing laws governing passenger carriers, was accelerated by President Jimmy Carter, who appointed economist and former professor Alfred Kahn, a vocal supporter of deregulation, to head the CAB. A second force to deregulate emerged from abroad. In 1977, Freddie Laker, a British entrepreneur who owned Laker Airways, created the Skytrain service, which offered extraordinarily cheap fares for transatlantic flights. Laker’s offerings coincided with a boom in low-cost domestic flights as the CAB eased some limitations on charter flights, i.e., flights offered by companies that do not actually own planes but leased them from the major airlines. The big air carriers responded by proposing their own lower fares. For example, American Airlines, the country’s second largest airline, obtained CAB approval for “SuperSaver” tickets.

All of these events proved to be favorable for large-scale deregulation. In November 1977, Congress formally deregulated air cargo. In late 1978, Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, legislation that had been principally authored by Senators Edward Kennedy and Howard Cannon. [Figure 1-11] There was stiff opposition to the bill—from the major airlines who feared free competition, from labor unions who feared nonunion employees, and from safety advocates who feared that safety would be sacrificed. Public support was, however, strong enough to pass the act. The act appeased the major airlines by offering generous subsidies and it pleased workers by offering high unemployment benefits if they lost their jobs as a result. The most important effect of the act, whose laws were slowly phased in, was on the passenger market. For the first time in 40 years, airlines could enter the market or (from 1981) expand their routes as they saw fit. Airlines (from 1982) also had full freedom to set their fares. In 1984, the CAB was finally abolished since its primary duty of regulating the airline industry was no longer necessary.

Figure 1-11. President Jimmy Carter signs the Airline Deregulation Act in late 1978.


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