Air Transport World

New questions over the sunset of CAB; deregulators wanted to get rid of a government agency; now they wonder whether DOT will stick to the notion of promoting competition.

The Department of Transportation's handling of the summertime traffic jam in the United States has raised anew concerns about its stewardship of the airline industry after the Civil Aeronautics Board sunsets next month.

During the debate preceding passage of the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) in October 1978, the bipartisan sponsors of reform had little difficulty agreeing on the broad principle of getting government out of route and rate regulation. They did, however, continue to wrestle with the question of how to handle the remaining economic functions such as essential air service, consumer protection, anti-trust authority, power over agreements and international matters.

Eventually, the debate boiled down to one issue: Should the U.S. get rid of the CAB altogether to ensure there would be no independent agency which could regulate? Or should there be a reduced but still autonomous agency to ensure that remaining regulatory functions would not be politicized as they might be in an Executive Branch department such as DOT?

Dangling threads

Ultimately, it was decided that sunsetting the CAB was the better idea. Big government does not have to be a permanent condition, the sunsetters said.

Questions, however, have continued to be raised about placement of CAB's remaining functions. The ADA left some threads dangling. Decisions still had to be made before Dec. 31, 1984, the date of CAB's formal demise. And in the years since 1978 a number of people within government, including other Executive Branch agencies and on Capitol Hill, have continued to wonder whether they did the right thing in sunsetting CAB.

DOT's public hand-wringing over peak-season travel delays, plus its actions in achieving passage of the CAB sunset bill have raised doubts to a higher pitch. Many are wondering if airline competition will survive under the protective umbrella of the DOT.

People outside the U.S. wonder what the shouting is about. In most countries of the world, policy and regulation, safety and economics, are folded into one central agency as a natural happenstance. Many countries have been looking forward to the day when the U.S. would not have quite so many units of government with which to deal. In that regard, their thoughts are quite similar to U.S. airlines', who had grown weary of coping with several agencies to accomplish one goal.

But the U.S.' airline system is different from that elsewhere. There is actual competition among airlines for passenger and shipper business. The airline companies' stock is owned not by the taxpayers through their government, but by individual and institutional investors. The airlines are supposed to make money for their investors, not follow the whims of their government. By definition, the Airline Deregulation Act was supposed to sever the economic relationship between these competing companies and the government. The government was not supposed to play handicapper anymore.

The action which has raised more doubts than any other was the Department's decision to intervene in "solving" the highly publicized congestion problems last summer at six major U. …

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