``The idea,'' suggests one airline executive, ``was to throw
eight pounds of paper at the guys who want to re-regulate.''
But you do not have to be a cynic to appreciate the eight-volume
assessment of the domestic airline industry released last week by
the Transportation Department.
For in spite of the impression left by chaotic airports, sloppy
cabin service and musical-chair corporate reorganizations, there is
impressive evidence that the airlines are still disciplined by
The one false note in this careful research effort is the
analysis of what Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner's task
force delicately labels airline ``marketing practices.''
The Bush administration, it appears, is not ready to challenge
the mega-carriers' use of frequent-flier bonuses and computerized
reservation systems to frighten away potential competitors.
Anyone who has braved the crowds at O'Hare or La Guardia knows
that more people than ever are flying.
What may surprise, though, is that small towns as well as big
ones are enjoying better service.
Flight frequency to 382 rural communities is up 44 percent since
1978, and a dozen medium-sized cities - like Charlotte, N.C.;
Dayton, Ohio, and Memphis - have reaped spectacular tenfold or
The report notes, moreover, that the percentage of passengers
with a choice of carriers grew sharply in the early 1980s and then
held steady through the wave of mergers and bankruptcies.
The resulting competitive pressures have forced carriers to pass
through most of the gains from higher productivity.
Adjusted for inflation, average fares are down 15 percent since
1984 and 26 percent since 1981.
One key to greater airline efficiency is the switch to
hub-and-spoke route structures, which allow major carriers to provide
one-stop service between thousands of pairs of cities but fewer
nonstops between others.
The new route systems choke big airports with peak-hour traffic
and limit the choice of carriers for residents of a few cities
dominated by single carriers - notably St. Louis, Minneapolis and
But for a great majority of travelers the shift assured greater
competition, even as the number of airlines fell.
In 1979, for example, the Albany-Minneapolis route was served
only through Buffalo or Chicago.
By 1988 it was practical to connect through Pittsburgh and
Detroit as well, increasing the number of competitors on the route
from two to four.
The report acknowledges that competition is ever more dependent
on airline access to major airports. …