Out of Control Policy Blog

Sen. Schumer Wants to Protect Airlines From Competition

USA Today and Sen. Chuck Schumer debate the auctioning of runway slots today. USA Today writes:

The same airlines excoriating the sale of slots in New York are perfectly happy to buy them when it's to their advantage. When slots opened at London's Heathrow airport this spring, Delta, Continental, Northwest and American jumped to buy them so they could fly these lucrative routes. And who could blame them? But in New York, airlines would rather hoard their slots – even when they're not using them. Several that are cutting schedules this fall, because of high fuel prices, asked to keep the slots they won't be using. The Transportation Department refused. Opposition from airlines is at least understandable: They're protecting profits. Opposition from the airport authority and senators – including Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Patty Murray, D-Wash. – is not. They seem more interested in currying favor with airlines than with consumers. Last we checked, the free market was the surest way to open competition, keep prices down and reduce congestion. Airlines, airports and lawmakers should step aside and let it work.

And Sen. Schumer argues:

...the administration has proposed a harebrained scheme: capping takeoffs and landings at New York-area airports, and selling slots to the highest bidder. A plan like this has never been tried at any airport in the USA. The idea is modeled on London's road congestion pricing plan, as if strategies to manage car traffic could ever apply to air travel. All key stakeholders have resisted auctions, including the airport operator, which is responsible for ensuring that things run smoothly. The reason is simple: This plan would mean higher fares, fewer flights and, in some cases, service cancellations. Discount carriers will struggle to outbid larger carriers, threatening service to smaller markets. Meanwhile, airlines that do buy slots will surely pass along the increased costs to fliers.

USA Today's editorial board is right on target in welcoming US DOT's proposal to auction off a surplus slot at Newark Airport. The legacy airlines are desperate to keep out new entrants (such as Virgin America) that want to offer air travelers a better combination of price and value to the West Coast. They would rather "baby-sit" their existing slots by filling them with 50-seat regional jets offering one additional flight frequency to some nearby point. Sen. Schumer should be ashamed of himself for trying to ban competition-friendly slot auctions. And if he really believed the airlines' rhetoric that slot auctions are illegal, there would be no need for his legislation to ban them.

Schumer also castigates the DOT for not improving air traffic control, but Schumer is one of a number of senators opposing the agency's much-needed airspace redesign for the New York/New Jersey area; that's the most promising near-term air traffic control fix. Schumer is also opposed to serious longer-term ATC reform, of the kind carried out in Canada, Australia, the UK, and Germany, making ATC self-supporting and free of political micromanagement.

What air travelers need is less political interference with aviation, not more.

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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