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Flying has become miserable — but it hasn't always been that way


Do you remember when air travel was glamorous, exciting, even fun? No? Me neither. Long lines, uncomfortable seats, overpriced food or none - but there was a time when flying wasn't like this. So how did we get here?

Ganesh Sitaraman is a law professor who studies and writes about regulation, and he's the author of a new book called "Why Flying Is Miserable: And How To Fix It." Good morning.


MARTIN: So are you traveling this week, or do you know better?

SITARAMAN: I am traveling this week and have already had one delay.

MARTIN: Oh, boy. OK. Seems like everybody has an air travel horror story. So what makes flying as miserable as you've written about?

SITARAMAN: Well, I think there's really two things. For passengers, it's all the little things - the baggage fees, the smaller seats, the delays, the cancellations, the connections. And at the level of the industry and the country, we've had bailouts and bankruptcies and taxpayer support programs. And all of these things are really the function of public policy. And the biggest public policy choice in the history of the airlines was the decision to deregulate them and to really remove the guardrails that Congress had put on them for many, many decades.

MARTIN: I think they - wasn't the argument that this would make things better - that there would be price competition, that the airlines would compete not just on price, but on service? How come that didn't happen?

SITARAMAN: That's exactly right. The vision of the deregulators was that everything would be better if you just let airlines fly wherever they want, whenever they want, and to charge whatever they want. But after a very short period of competition, what we ended up with was more concentration in the airline industry, less service to a lot of small places - cities and rural areas - and instead of a race to the top on service, a real race to the bottom, where now the seats are smaller than ever before.

MARTIN: You know, what's interesting is that, you know, talking, though, about the bailouts - I mean, one of the reasons that this is so infuriating to the public is, you know, people aren't stupid. They know that significant tax dollars have gone into bailing out the airline industry at some point and - as briefly as you can, like, how do we reconcile those two things? I mean, are - is it, like, a kind of more like a utility, or is it more like - I don't know - like a private car that somebody owns that you happen to use? How should we think about this?

SITARAMAN: Well, for much of American history, we thought of airlines as a utility because they're an essential transportation infrastructure for so many communities, for economic activity, for tourism and for travel. And that shifted with deregulation - for people seeing them - airlines - as more like any other business. And I think the bailouts really prove that they're more like a utility because they're too important to fail. And that's why Congress feels the need to rescue them. When you have a major crisis, if we end up without an airline industry, it would be devastating for the country. So they are a special business. They have special privileges, and I think they should have some obligations, too.

MARTIN: So what will it take to fix it, and is there any energy to do that or any sort of public will to do that?

SITARAMAN: Well, I think we need to have reforms that focus on three principles. And the first one is no more flyover country. We should have airline service to lots of places, including small cities, all the different regions and rural areas.

Second is no bailouts, no bankruptcies. We should have a reliable airline industry that is doing well in the good times, but is not going to go under any taxpayer support in the tough times.

And third, fair and transparent pricing - we've just had a system that's had a proliferation of different types of prices, extra fees and dynamic pricing, where the prices change depending on when you buy your ticket. I think we could simplify all of that.

MARTIN: And is there any will to do that, as briefly as you can?

SITARAMAN: Well, my hope is that because there are people who fly in every state in the country and in every congressional district in the country, that if people make their voices heard, tell their elected officials, we could actually change this.

MARTIN: That is Ganesh Sitaraman. His new book is called "Why Flying Is Miserable: And How To Fix It." You can read it while you're waiting for your flight. Professor Sitaraman, thanks so much for talking to us.

SITARAMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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