Just imagine a world in which, almost overnight, the transport system breaks down. Flights across the world are cancelled, leaving thousands of travelers stranded far from home.
Airports are crowded with mobs of angry, frightened people. Even greater throngs descend on the railway stations, desperate to squeeze on to the horribly overcrowded trains.
I do not know the age of the writer, but the real Golden Age — at least, for air travel — came and went a long time ago. Setting the stage, in the early 1950s a New York to London trip by propeller plane took 18 hours with two stops; the faster “prop” planes in the late 1950s cut that to 13 hours. The advent of commercial jet service further halved it.
The first commercial jet to fly was the , operated by British Overseas Airways. It entered service in 1952, but structural defects caused several airframe failures. Incredibly, vibrations caused by the plane’s rectangular passenger windows triggered structural collapse. The result: service was terminated in 1954. Years later, substantially redesigned Comet models flew, starting in 1958; a key change was using oval windows (circular also would have worked). But the — quieter, faster, longer range — entered overseas service shortly thereafter and popularized jet travel. It thus became the commercial flight symbol of what was called the Jet Age.
Commercial air travel today brings home to those of us old enough to remember what was called by a national magazine at the start of the decade the Soaring Sixties. What was once an often enjoyable experience has now become akin to minimum security detention. The “707” made its operational debut in December 1957, entering full commercial service in 1958. Yet a noteworthy February 1959 trans-Atlantic flight might have derailed the 707’s rapid ascendancy, and given the Comet a comeback chance. A trans-Atlantic flight with 129 passengers aboard — including William F. Buckley and famed dancer Gene Kelly — nearly crashed into the sea. (Their names are not mentioned in the linked posting, but I distinctly recall reading a WFB column recounting the story.) The plane went off autopilot undetected, and began a steep dive, plummeting from 35,000 feet to 5,000 before the pilot regained control and righted the aircraft moments from splashdown.
To fully appreciate the difference jets made, one had to have taken a transcontinental flight on a propeller airplane. That I experienced firsthand, months shy of turning 10, in March 1957, flying New York to Los Angeles on the . The flight took 9 hours, 30 minutes into ferocious westward jet-stream headwinds, and 7 hours on the return, aided by tailwinds. When I made my first 707 transcontinental round-trip, between the same cities, during my school’s 1959-1960 Christmas vacation, the flight duration was 53/4 hours outbound, 41/2 hours back. Then came July 1969, when I had the memorable pleasure of flying Pan Am Clipper class on a day flight to Paris; the food was excellent, served with china, silver, and glassware. I knew not that a calamitous end to 1960s flight nirvana was just around the corner.
The Golden Age of Air Travel began to unravel on Oct. 31, 1969, when a deranged Vietnam veteran — sorry for the generally inaccurate stereotype; most vets are well-adjusted, but that is what this hijacker was — from Los Angeles to Rome. The plane, originally a domestic flight, was forced to fly multiple stops to reach Rome. All passengers and two of three stewardesses were allowed to exit in Denver; one remained, along with the flight crew, for the rest of the flight. The hijacker was arrested and jailed, but then granted clemency by the Italians, reportedly due to public opposition to America’s Vietnam entanglement.
Hijacking ended air travel’s Golden Age by ruining the airport experience, an integral part of travel; on many flights, passengers spent more time in the airport than they did in flight. All bags — though not persons — were subjected to search; my first such experience was before boarding a 1970 New York to LA flight. Overseas it was a commonplace for passengers to identify their checked luggage on the tarmac before it was loaded into the cargo hold. Hijackings of U.S. airplanes actually began with , in 1958 (just before Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover); they continued for 45 years.
During the 1960s such episodes were a source of material for comedy routines on variety shows; but with the upsurge in global terrorism in 1968, including hijackings, they ceased to be amusing news. The transpired when a prominent Palestinian terror group commandeered four jumbo jets in 1970, forced them to fly to Jordan, where three of them were blown up — fortunately, after all passengers had been freed. (A fifth jetliner was hijacked in London, but the pilot forced the plane into a dive; the hijackers were overpowered — one was fatally shot, and one injured.)
There was little to cheer about until 1976, which offered one welcome respite from the depressing news of serial skyjacks — some of those resulting in passengers being murdered before the events ended. Celebrated throughout the Western world was the by Israeli commandos of a passenger plane hijacked by West German and Palestinian terrorists, and taken to Entebbe, Uganda. Their astonishing raid took place July 4, a capstone to America’s Bicentennial birthday.
Airline Deregulation Invents the Flying Greyhound Bus
Alfred Kahn, one of the leading regulatory economists of the 20th century, was the prime architect of the Carter Administration’s 1978 airline deregulation. As chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, which — in what was a first ever since of administrative agencies — voted itself out of existence in 1984, Kahn’s philosophy: ”Whenever competition is feasible, it is, for all its imperfections, superior to regulation.” With characteristic candor he added, as to regulating air travel: “I really don’t know one airplane from the other. To me they are just marginal costs with wings.”
The for airline deregulation are impressive. Less than 20 percent of Americans had flown by 1965; by 2000, more than half had flown at least one round trip per year. Between 1970 and 2011, the annual number of flyers had tripled. Ten major carriers controlled 90 percent of the market, with the remainder split among eight smaller carriers. But in 2020, four major carriers controlled 80 percent of the market. A 2018 that 13 percent of Americans still had never flown.
But that sea change came at a stiff price for passengers: What had been during the first four decades of flight a classy, comfortable flight experience was transformed into a price-driven, no-frills ordeal. Seats grew smaller; space between seats shrunk; passengers dressed like unmade beds; food became barely digestible; flight attendants — in the Golden Age called (not pejoratively) stewards and stewardesses — became unisex, and many (thankfully not all) exuded the charm of prison guards.
The consequences [of deregulation] have been very adverse. Our airlines, once world leaders, are now laggards in every category, including fleet age, service quality and international reputation. Fewer and fewer flights are on time.
Airport congestion has become a staple of late-night comedy shows. An even higher percentage of bags are lost or misplaced. Last-minute seats are harder and harder to find. Passenger complaints have skyrocketed. Airline service, by any standard, has become unacceptable.
In his monograph, Lessons From Deregulation: Telecommunications and Airlines After the Crunch (AEI/Brookings, 2003), Kahn noted that the “hub-and-spoke” airport model enabled carriers to offer direct service to many new markets.
The ATC Time Bomb
ATC — Air Traffic Control — became a national issue in 1981, with the ATC strike over wages that August. President Reagan decertified the union and hired replacement controllers. Without a major air accident, Reagan’s gamble paid off. But ATC remained a government function, run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Several countries their ATC function. The result was a vastly superior ATC operation, enabling closer flight spacing, more flexible reassignment, and hence, far superior service.
The FAA for flights and passengers, as of 2021. As 2.9 million commercial passengers flew daily, more than 1 billion were carried in 2021. There are 70,000 daily flights of all kinds — more than 16 million per year, handled by 520 ATC centers using 14,000 air controllers. At any time, 5,400 planes are typically in the air, covering 5.3 million square miles of domestic airspace, utilizing some 5,000 public and over 14,000 private airports.
The has additional data. In 2019 — the last pre-pandemic year — U.S. 8.6 million passengers, an average of 23,600 flights per day. per flight was 85 percent. (Kahn notes that load factors in the decade before deregulation were under 53 percent, and that by 1997-2001 they were 70 percent.) From we learn that individual planes follow a rather hectic schedule, up to a maximum of four flights per day. Factor in crew availability, flight-hour limits and delays — which affect 10 to 22 percent of scheduled flights, with one to three percent canceled outright, and in normal times — i.e., no pandemic — there is not much slack in the system.
When an airliner takes off from a U.S. airport, the air traffic controller who was responsible for the takeoff hands a strip of paper to another controller who will guide the flight listed on the paper through the next phase. This is how things work in any of the 123 airport control towers across the United States, as controllers and pilots steer planes from the gate to the runway and through the busy airspace surrounding the airport.
For critics of U.S. air traffic technology, this means of transferring responsibility for the safe and efficient routing of passenger planes is emblematic of a broader problem. “Paper flight strips are the poster child for backwardness,” says Robert Poole, who directs transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank based in Los Angeles. “Nav Canada has had electronic flight strips for nearly two decades.”
Since 1987, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Germany have switched over to private ATC operation. Opponents assert that safety will suffer, and that the U.S. skies are filled with vastly more planes, and that Canada’s system does not predict what will happen here. The FAA plans to switch to electronic/GPS ATC this decade, but it remains aspirational. Legislation is stalemated.
America’s dependence on ATC was given a stern test when that union representing air traffic controllers, PATCO, staged an illegal walkout in August 1981, despite a law passed by Congress making such strikes illegal, and in defiance of a warning from President Reagan that those who did not return to work within 48 hours would be fired. He quoted Calvin Coolidge: “There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime, by anybody.”Reagan, himself a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, who had led his members in a legal strike, fired everyone who defied his order to return. In his memoir, An American Life (1990), Reagan wrote of what he called his first major domestic crisis, that PATCO’s leaders thought he was bluffing. He fired most of the 13,000 members, hired new ones, and, discovered that the ATC system could be run safely with 6,000 fewer controllers.
In his account of Reagan’s White House years, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1991), columnist Lou Cannon wrote that “Reagan’s action sent a resonant signal of leadership that would be long remembered.” Cannon quotes a former chief of staff to President Ford, Donald Rumsfeld — who had not supported Reagan prior to the 1980 campaign — saying: “It struck me as singular. You had a president who was new to the office and not taken seriously by a lot of people. It showed a decisiveness and an ease with his instincts.”
TSA and the Pandemic: A Diminished Flying Future
Entering the 21st century, commercial flight was already a downer — especially for those who flew during the Golden Age. It was to get worse — much worse. On Sept. 11, 2001 the infamous 9/11 terror attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, and demolished the landmark NYC Twin Towers. This led in short order to the creation of the Transportation Security Administration — TSA. Getting from the curb to the gate became a succession of screenings, including at times intrusive searches of one’s body. Then, come 2020, came the pandemic, bringing “mask totalitarianism” to the airport experience, ending only when in April 2022 a federal judge the CDC’s mandate for failure to follow the procedural rules governing administrative agencies.
As if this isn’t enough, the pandemic forced layoff and early retirements, creating a . Pilots at Southwest and Delta pilot fatigue is on the rise, putting safety at increased risk. FAA rules limit pilots to 30 hours per week flying time, with at least 9 hours rest in between shifts. But increased pilot fatigue means that pilots often tire before they reach allowable flight limits.
Airline deregulation may be said to have at least conferred positive benefits, by making flying affordable to most of the American public. Security hurdles of some level were clearly necessary, albeit they inevitably greatly diminished the ground experience. No matter what improvements might be made to available flight options, the ground portion is not likely to get better.
The devaluation of transit through airports is the most salient factor in the decline of the end-to-end travel experience. Thus, end-to-end quality is driven by ground trials and tribulations — security imperatives and ATC stagnation. On top of that, the hyper-democratization of air travel ushered in a lowest-cost air transport model that sacrifices quality for quantity. The Golden Age of Air Travel is over — grounded — for the foreseeable future.
There was, however, one bright, shining period when a new mode of air travel made for the fortunate few a travel experience that made one forget about ground travails. That story will be the subject of a second article.
John Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (Discovery Institute Press, 2d. ed. 2014)