Carter's Legacy to Air Travellers

Article excerpt

The other day I had to fly, at short notice, to Chicago. I found myself flying from Dulles airport - rather than the closer, more convenient National airport - and landing at Midway airport in Chicago, rather than O'Hare, the world's busiest airport and by far the easiest for me at that end, too.

There was a long traipse out to the gate and, while waiting for departure, I quietly watched the airline on which I was flying, Air Tran, going about its business. An arriving plane pulled up noisily outside the jetway where I was sitting, and a crumpled figure, unshaven and (literally, I swear) picking his teeth, ambled out. "Bill," said the young woman collecting boarding cards, "will you take over here?"

The man nodded amiably, still picking at his teeth and looking as though he had just pulled into the nearest transport caff. But it gradually dawned on me that he was wearing a uniform and had stripes on his arms - and that this shambolic figure was the pilot of the DC-9 that had just landed, and the man who would fly me to Chicago.

I am not a nervous flier by any means, having survived unscheduled landings by Aeroflot Ilyushins in the Ukraine and Siberia, and Pakistan Airways steering an ancient, creaking turboprop into Peshawar ("Inshallah, we shall be landing. . .") - but I didn't feel completely relaxed until I was safely on the ground in Chicago. Inside, that DC-9 looked as though it had done warhorse service all over the world for decades; the lavatory walls were painted with layer upon layer of cream paint, like a military aircraft long past pensionable age.

My confidence was not increased by the knowledge that Air Tran was once better known as ValuJet - until, that is, one of its DC-9s crashed into the Florida Everglades in 1996, killing all 110 people on board. It has tried to revamp its image as a fresh, new, exciting airline - but rather gave the game away by only recently getting round to changing the address of its website from www.valujet.com to www.airtran.com. Even at a compact airport such as Midway, Air Tran's DC-9 seemed to have parked at a hangar several miles from the terminal, requiring another hot and sweaty traipse.

Why, you will quite reasonably be asking, did I subject myself to this ordeal? The answer, simply, was economic. My short-notice journey would have cost more than $1,000 return on one of the major airlines such as United or American - I kid you not - but Air Tran got me there and back for less than $300. Hundreds of people clearly felt the same, because both the flights were packed.

And the reason for this disparity? Twenty-one years ago, President Jimmy Carter was persuaded by the economist Alfred Kahn to deregulate the US air industry.

There are now ten major airlines (including ones struggling badly, such as TWA), compared with 30 then. …