Travelers of a certain advanced age may remember something called the Civil Aeronautics Board.
The CAB, as it was known, regulated air travel in the U.S. — air routes, fares, access to airports, even passenger rights.
The CAB went out of business in 1985, but I’m pretty sure it would have frowned upon an airline dragging a passenger up an aisle and throwing him off an overcrowded aircraft. A recent incident involving a United Airlines passenger enduring that indignity has prompted calls for tighter regulations for airlines. From time to time, some aviation enthusiasts have even argued for a new Civil Aeronautics Board, one empowered to elevate air travel from its current cattle-car experience to something more comfortable and convenient.
Indeed, air travel during the CAB’s era was more predictable and, for the most part, more enjoyable. There were certainly more choices for consumers.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
It was more expensive, too. The board not only set routes, it also set airfares. Its job was to guarantee a financial return for airlines, and it did so by regulating competition among the carriers.
That was great for the airlines but not so good for customers looking to travel cheaply. The board was abolished, in fact, to bring more competition to air travel, making it cheaper to fly.
Mission accomplished. An average domestic round-trip ticket cost $443 in 1980, according to Airlines for America, an industry lobbying group; in 2016, the same ticket cost $249, adjusted for inflation. To get that lower price, passengers only had to accept crowded flights, luggage fees, missed connections, inconvenient schedules, lousy meals and the occasional fist-fight in the aisle.
We should keep the CAB’s history in mind as the war on regulations escalates.
Politicians love to criticize regulations as “job-killing” and costly. President Donald Trump lambastes federal rules relentlessly. Sens. Roy Blunt and Pat Roberts routinely demonize “bureaucrats” who threaten farmers, homeowners and businesses.
They’re partially correct. Federal rules do make electricity more expensive and cars less affordable. Workplace rules make employees more expensive and products more costly.
But prices are just one side of the equation. Cheaper electricity can mean dirtier air. Get rid of the Food and Drug Administration, and more people will get sick. End workplace safety supervision, and on-the-job injuries are more likely.
Instead of blindly rejecting regulation, we should focus on value: What’s a reasonable balance between rules and costs?
Let’s ask Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas. He’s so anti-regulation he created the Office of the Repealer to take on excessive regulation of business and industry.
A bill now sits on his desk that would increase regulation of the amusement park industry. The measure, passed after an Olathe boy was killed on a Schlitterbahn water slide, will undoubtedly raise costs for customers, but it may also protect kids who want to go to a water park on a hot summer day.
Is there any question that he should sign it?
As he does so, the governor — and all of us — should think about why such rules are in place.
And why, in the end, prices aren’t the only thing that matters.