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Air travel today: What Kahn hath wrought

Never have so many been so unhappy with the state of the air travel industry.

The traveling public. Congress. Airline employees. Investors. It’s impossible to think of a single interest group that doesn’t think the airline industry is in shambles.

Blame it on Kahn. That’s Alfred Kahn, the economist appointed by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s to head up the Civil Aeronautics Board and oversee the transition of U.S. commercial aviation from a regulated to an unregulated system.

The results of deregulation are all too apparent: delays, lost baggage, convoluted pricing, indifferent service, a rat’s nest of niggling fees, disappearing meals, and planes packed practically to overflowing.

But the numbers are on Kahn’s side. More people are flying, and they’re flying for less.

According to a USA Today profile of Kahn, “In 1978, when the Airline Deregulation Act passed, the average air traveler paid 8.3 cents per mile for a flight. In 2006, travelers paid just less than half that rate on an inflation-adjusted basis, according to the Air Transport Association, the industry’s trade group.”

Kahn estimates the annual savings on air travel at between $5 and $10 billion. Other estimates are as high as $20 billion saved per year as a result of airline deregulation.

Obviously, those savings have come at a cost. Those who can recall the period when government regulated air travel wistfully remember a kinder, gentler era. Flying was more pleasure than pain, an anticipated experience rather than a dreaded one. And they wonder whether what Kahn has wrought is really a step in the right direction.

There’s one thing Kahn’s supporters and detractors can agree on: he democratized air travel.

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