I made the mistake of listening to NPR again this morning, and they had a story about airline security that had me chewing ten-penny nails, due to both the story itself, and their coverage of it.
I only caught the tail end, but apparently some federal Air Marshals arrived late for an American flight, and tried to commandeer seats in first class, insisting that the passengers whose seats they wanted be put off the plane. Their excuse was that they needed to be able to see the cockpit. The airline had given them aisle seats in the front of coach, with a clear view, but that wasn’t good enough for them. Perhaps they wanted to get the free booze, to complement their intoxication with power. The airline didn’t let them get away with it, but it wasn’t clear what the outcome was (the story’s over at NPR in audio, but my sound card is on the fritz right now).
But what really fried me was the ending. The reporter says that there’s an inherent tension between the government, which wants to fight terrorism, and the airlines, who want to generate revenue.
She really said it, just like that. As though the airline has no intrinsic interest in fighting terrorism, as though they’d cheerfully set up charter flights full of Al Qaeda operatives, even help them plan the flight, from takeoff to skyscraper, as long as they got paid.
She got it precisely reversed, of course. The airlines are taking a balanced approach–they are interested in both fighting terrorism and staying in business, whereas the government, at least if we are to judge by its actions, has no interest in the financial health of the industry whatsoever.
This reminds me of the old arguments about how we needed more government regulation on aircraft maintenance and procedures, because in its absence, the airlines would cut corners, and skimp, and crash airplanes, and kill people.
It never seems to occur to these nimrods that crashing airplanes is bad for business. For some unaccountable reason, people don’t like to fly on airlines whose planes fall out of the sky with any regularity. Insurance carriers won’t give very good rates to airlines whose airplanes have to be replaced often. Airlines will have trouble hiring employees who feel that they’re taking their lives in their hands on every trip.
No one has more incentive than an airline to make an aircraft safe, whether from mechanical failure, or from nutballs with box cutters.
On the other hand, government bureaucrats will fanatically seek safety, to the exclusion of all else, including the rights of passengers and their willingness to tolerate the disastrous state of air travel today, because they know that if there is another hijacking, they’ll be blamed, particularly now that air security has been made a federal responsibility.
But no bureaucrat will suffer if an airline goes under–there are too many other excuses that they can use to deflect blame.
And no bureaucrat will lose his job because of marketing trips not made, hands not shaken, deals not done, acquaintances not made, wealth and jobs not created, because it’s just gotten to be too much of a pain in the ass to fly. But the damage to the economy will continue unabated and silently.
This is another reason why the federalization of this function has been, and is going to continue to be, so disastrous for the industry–there’s no counterbalance to the madness.