REMEMBER THE horror stories that were trotted out when airline deregulation was proposed? There would be higher fares, skimpier service and a rash of accidents as well as bankruptcies -- or so opponents of the idea warned. Now, a year after deregulation, what do we have? None of the above. What we have are game cards.
Those cards are this spring's version of the airlines' effort to adjust to a world of competition. If you get the right card, the symbols underneath the horrid stuff that has to be scraped off will reward you with anything from a free drink to a free trip. On one airline, even the losing cards can be entered in a drawing for the super prize -- a free round trip for two, once a year for the rest of the winner's life, to any place the airline flies.
The airlines, as this kind of competition suggests, are alive and well. They are battling hard for customers, just as the grocery stores are with their current coupon war.The warnings have not come true. Eighteen months after President Carter signed the deregulation bill, the biggest economics danger to the airlines comes from the rising cost of fuel, not from reckless and predatory competition. Average fares have risen considerably less than the cost of living, service is up on some routes although down on others, the safety record remains good, and no one has gone bankrupt.
The answers aren't all in, of course, and won't be for several years. But the early evidence suggests that deregulation is going to work out well. There will be more changes in the transportation network -- the big airlines may be replaced by smaller, commuter lines in more small cities and there may be more mergers. But the chances of a return to a fully regulated industry are almost nil.
The importance of this is that Congress is now trying to decide whether to deregulate two more industries -- the trucks and the railroads. The three industries are not fully comparable -- the airlines, alone among them, transport primarily people -- but the principles are quite similar. That's why some of the trucking companies have been trying to convince Congress that airline deregulation has been a disaster.
They were unsuccessful in the Senate, where a strong trucking deregulation bill was passed despite predictions -- like those made five years ago about the airlines -- that it will mean higher rates and lower service. They should also be unsuccessful in the House. Those game cards and the current cut-rate air fares to Florida and the West Coast are not evidence of a collapsing industry -- but rather of a vigorously competitive market.