Why airline reregulation is no longer taboo

Take the issue of airline maintenance outsourcing: Several months ago I spoke at a conference in Washington about my research into this topic on behalf of Consumer Reports. That conference was co-sponsored by the Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group for corporate travelers, and its president, Kevin Mitchell, describes the airlines as being engaged in "a mad race to the bottom on maintenance costs." Clearly passengers are not served by such aggressive cost-cutting, though shareholders may be (in the short run only).

Mitchell offers some perspective on a topic we'll be hearing a lot more about in the months to come, as more and more domestic airlines face the specter of bankruptcy filings: "The debate has focused solely on the airlines' profitability, but the debate should be focused on the country's long-term energy independence." Mitchell adds, "Unless you want to make a religion out of the free market, you have to agree with Crandall."

The coming debate

Within a short time, both houses of Congress and the new president may very well be confronted with bailing out a failing U.S. airline industry. Before they act, they would be wise to recognize that airline executives and many Wall Street aviation analysts are biased parties to such a discussion, and other voices should be heard — voices that speak on behalf of consumers and communities. And voices that speak of the bigger picture and how a viable commercial aviation system supports America's economy, security and defense. What's good for airline management may not be what's best for the taxpayers funding such a bailout.

The reregulation debate could well be upon us soon. It's certain the specifics of these arguments will be hotly contested. But it's critical that legislators, journalists and the traveling public understand just what is at stake. If the nation's airline industry enters into full-blown crisis mode, those who waited to learn more may find they're too late.

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Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at USATODAY.com at travel@usatoday. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.

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