hat is it that the Big Five airlines want? Their vision is straightforward and clear: They want the government to stay out of the operation of their businesses, and they want the government to prop up their finances.

Now, is that asking too much?

And, by the way, they reserve the right to stand behind the Airline Deregulation Act in defense of their independence, but there are times when they may want a bit of relief from it.

In other words, the airlines have an adolescent view of the world ("Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall?" is the apt title of a book on teens by Anthony E. Wolf).

Throughout much of the '90s, airline execs acted like adults and pointed out how well deregulation worked -- more people than ever were traveling, fares were lower and their companies were profitable. And, they could take credit for all this good stuff because they stood up on their own hind feet and achieved it through revenue growth and a minimum of governmental involvement.

After 9/11, however, the airlines called for, and received, a $5 billion cash payout and $10 billion in loan guarantees. Congress bought into the argument that exceptional times called for exceptional subsidies.

A bit of regression could be expected after the shock of 9/11. But now looms a war with Iraq, and airline execs are preparing to ask for what they requested, but didn't get, last time. Continental chairman and CEO Gordon Bethune told Travel Weekly that, should war break out, he would look to the government to suspend passenger taxes "and other forms of taxation," allow the airlines access to the strategic petroleum reserves at their acquisition prices and "most important, [grant] antitrust immunity so that we could coordinate and rationalize services with other airlines."

Yikes! "Antitrust immunity"? "Coordinate and rationalize services with other airlines"? Assuming this means the airlines could carve up the country and each take on a proportionate share of capacity, isn't that exactly the type of behavior that led Congress to pass the Airline Deregulation Act in the first place?

Though they stand ready, willing and able to receive cash, subsidies, tax holidays and relief from the competitiveness of the marketplace, some airlines bristle at the suggestion that the government can get involved in any other aspect of the business related to 9/11 fallout.

Last August, the Department of Transportation told airlines they shouldn't charge more than $25 (each way) to accommodate passengers with a ticket on a carrier that suspends a route due to insolvency or bankruptcy.

Indignant, American and Delta sued. Both cite this DOT action as running contrary to the Airline Deregulation Act. (Incidentally, the DOT said that the airlines could charge more, but they'd have to show that additional costs were justified.)

Now, in principle, I agree with the airlines -- I'm not at all sure the DOT has the authority to have set this limit, and I'm keen on letting marketplaces set prices for services, even when the services are offered at times of duress. After all, even casket-makers get to set their own prices.

But the airlines' willingness to cast aside the tenets of the Airline Deregulation Act when it doesn't suit them, and then wrap themselves in it when it serves their purposes, speaks volumes about how deep their regression has set in.

Should there be a war, Congress -- and it would take an act of Congress -- should not grant antitrust immunity. It's true that not every airline may survive the aftermath of a war with Iraq, but there may be worse consequences if Congress gives in to the airlines' requests.

Every parent knows there are times when adolescent behavior leads to someone being grounded.


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