Despite the current mess in the civil air transport system of the United States -- featuring bankruptcies, fare wars and future uncertainty -- any suggestion that the problem has been caused or worsened by hasty deregulation brings a petulant response that ducks the issue.
In a recent column, I reported that Gordon Autry, president of Rocky Mountain Airways of Denver, had cited the predatory, cutthroat competition among airlines as responsible for knocking at least a half-dozen airlines out of business, and as threatening the destruction of what he said used to be the best airline system in the world.
The deregulatory enthusiasts respond quickly that the verdict of the free market should not be challenged. When critics point not only to bankruptcies, but to the fact that many smaller communities no longer have adequate airline service under deregulation, deregulators like former CAB chairman Alfred Kahn like to say: "So be it -- that's the way the enterprise system works."
In a response printed in The Post to my column dealing with Autry, Cornish F. Hitchcock, a local attorney, argued that the cause of the airlines' problem is not deregulation but a weak economy. He said that the airlines and the customers they serve would be even worse off if Congress had not deregulated the airline industry.
His argument just doesn't wash. The fact is that the airline industry under deregulation is on a course where competition is being wrung out by the creation of an oligopoly of a few remaining large airlines. The public is not being served by this process, and Autry is not the only experienced person within the industry saying so.
Secor D. Browne, chairman of the CAB from 1969 to 1973, pointed out in a recent speech to the Aero Club of California that the issue isn't one, simplistically, of the good guys versus the bad guys, where the good guys are the deregulators and the bad guys those mischievous people who delight in slapping on controls for controls' sake.
Rather, as Browne suggests, the question involves a need to recognize that transportation is an essential public utility "which must be assured, and therefore be regulated in the public interest."
Even with airline traffic up 5 percent, fuel prices either stable or going down, with concessions by the airline unions and productivity growing, the industry's profits still have deteriorated badly. Why? he asks. His answer: "The primary reasons are that although, like other unregulated industries, airlines suffer from recession and inflation, there has been destructive price competition, and overcapacity -- that is, too many seats are chasing too few bottoms."
Another close observer of what's going on is Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation. In a recent guest editorial for Airport Press Magazine, Andrews wrote:
"The predicament of the airline industry cannot be attributed to the economy and to the air controllers' strike. The deregulation act allows carriers to adopt route and market practices pretty much as they see fit. Some airlines have been more aggressive than others, and Braniff was the most enthusiastic of all about expanding its route system. It tripled its size and then disintegrated.
"While vigorously cutting fares on long-haul routes, airlines have also boosted the fares on substantially shorter routes, which discourages travel. At the same time, large carriers have pulled out of many small and medium-sized cities, reducing service in those areas.
"Deregulation was intended to stop cross-subsidization of airline routes by which airlines charge higher fares on some routes in order to subsidize other routes. But it is now clear that people flying today on less popular, small-city routes are paying more per mile in order to make up for airline losses on highly competitive routes."
I do not think that the traveling public will willingly accept the need to pay higher rates for shorter hauls on the excuse that this is the way a free market works. Even a defender of the deregulated system such as Edwin I. Colodny, chairman of USAIR, sees the contradictions in the present system. In a recent speech to the American Society of Travel Agents, Colodny said:
"Today . . . you can fly where you want, that is, if you have the slots. Chevrolets, cereal boxtops, and Borax gets you air-travel bargains, not to mention the growing array of frequent-flyer bonus plans. Last week I saw the ultimate: an airline proclaiming, 'Fly now. Pay never.' The industry is exhibiting its own worst excesses."