Where are you, Piedmont Airlines?

The natives seem to be getting restless about airline service in and out of Asheville. (For the purposes of this article, we’re going to call it ‘service,’ anyway.) Along with that, there seems to be the belief that, if we make our displeasure known, surely the airlines — or maybe the government — will take note and fix things. (For the purposes of this article, this is called the Good Fairy’s work). But a look at some history of the problem suggests that we need to be careful what we wish for in the first place, this being a hotbed of believers in smaller guvmint, or less guvmint.

A personal experience may lend some perspective to this discourse. In 1983, my wife and I strolled up to the Piedmont Airlines desk in the foyer of the Haywood Park Hotel and purchased two round-trip tickets to Washington, D.C., for about $175 each. Simple — walk up to the desk (womanned by two courteous employees in attractive uniforms) and buy tickets. No line, no overworked, surly airline people to treat us like cattle.

Subsequently, we boarded the plane without delays, left on time, heading directly to Dulles, and returned the same way. Both flights were in clean, comfortable, nearly-new passenger jets operated by what was one of the best airlines in the industry at that time.

Today, of course, you must either drive to Charlotte to catch USAir, or fly from Asheville to Atlanta — in the opposite direction from Washington. Then you go to Washington, after whatever amount of time you spend waiting for a connection.

Oh, joy inexpressible! The magic of deregulation! It’s given us weird air-service routes and connections, dinky little planes to Atlanta, and airline employees who hate their jobs, their airline and, above all, their customers. Plus late flights and missed connections (speaking from my experience, anyway). And as for the food — well, we’ll just not bring that up, OK? (No pun intended.)

But didn’t deregulation promise better times? Remember “Get the government out of the airline bidness! Less regulations! Get rid of all that red tape!”? How much happier we all were supposed to be. To the best of my recollection, our trip to Washington went off perfectly, without a trace of red tape.

Well, the power-people sold airline deregulation to Congress anyway, and Transportation Secretary Alfred Kahn in Jimmy Carter’s administration worked out the plans, because people wanted it. You know, as the farmers over in eastern North Carolina were saying at the time: “Get the guvmint offa our backs and outa our pockets.” But that story will have to wait.

Later, with his special charisma, Mr. Reagan thought of a way to go one better; he stepped in and blew the air-traffic controllers out of the water. They were thoroughly downsized after their union was busted, which may be why the Asheville tower is undermanned, depending on whom you talk to.

Who came out on top in all this? Well, not the individual air traveler. But wait! Airline-industry people and their hired press will cheerfully remind us that fares have come down. Well, try flying from Asheville to Washington, D.C., cheaply and conveniently anymore. If you factor in the time and expense of driving to Charlotte, it begins to add up. Flying from Asheville to Charlotte doesn’t make any sense for what a ticket costs. Fares to overseas destinations are sometime very inexpensive, so it all averages out, right?

No, the winners in all this were the “captains of industry”: the banks, Wall Street and the CEOs of some of the big airlines. In 1997 or ’98, something like five domestic airlines went belly up. But the major carriers — Delta, American, United and others — did fine. By taking over their former competitors’ routes, the big carriers’ profits (and stock prices) have done splendidly over the past few years. If you were a big airline CEO, flush with stock options, you came out handsomely. As a fictional character in Michael Crichton’s book Airframe puts it, “That’s the genius of deregulation. … When the bill comes, nobody pays.” To which the other character replies, “Except the passengers.”

It is the American way, after all, the dream of every entrepreneur: Drive the competition out of business and collect their customers. Someone asked Alfred Kahn, the architect of this mess, if deregulation had worked out the way he had hoped it would (bankruptcies, huge mergers, people laid off). He replied that no one had ever imagined the antitrust division of the Department of Justice would sit by and let the mess happen.

He forgets that, at the same time deregulation was so popular, we had another tune: “too much guvmint; smaller guvmint is better.” At the same time! So the antitrust division got smaller, and nobody was watching the huge mergers gobble up smaller airlines.

The American way! The big airlines got bigger, the rich got richer, and now regional airlines serve small towns all over America with small planes feeding “hubs.” This is a huge advantage if you happen to be a major airline. Meanwhile, Asheville hires consultants to tell them how to solve the problem.

We can’t point the finger at any one figure or political party. Deregulation was carried out during Jimmy Carter’s watch, and destruction of the air-traffic-controller force took place during Mr. Reagan’s tour. We all march to the same drummer(s): Wall Street, the banks and corporate leaders.

Should we in Asheville care? Does deregulation matter to Asheville? Well, this story is about when we had a good deal and didn’t know it. It wasn’t broke, but we let the politicians fix it. Piedmont was a good airline: home-grown, born and bred in Charlotte, vibrant and successful. It was so successful, in fact, that its bigger competitors wanted Piedmont’s routes. No problem — the con men simply convinced (or bought) Congress. Now we have USAir. If clamor and public meetings can bring Piedmont Airlines back, count me in. We want less guvmint, but don’t take our candy and ice cream.

[Forest entomologist Allen Thomas has lived in Asheville since 1982. He retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 1994.]

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