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Published: Friday, 1/19/2001

Flying on empty

Hopefully the day will come when Washington finally re-regulates the airline industry, a long overdue and badly needed fix for a system that is truly broken. In the meantime, action must be taken to increase competition as the number of passenger carriers declines and air travel becomes increasingly difficult.

The Clinton administration is leaving office having been advised via a couple of new studies how the federal Department of Transportation could wield its legal authority to better police the airlines' natural urge to cut the throat of low-fare competition; however, Rodney Slater, the outgoing transportation secretary, decided against exercising that power at the last minute.

Instead, Mr. Slater is bequeathing to the Bush folks a set of three-year-old guidelines that would limit how forcefully the major airlines can react to competitors. The guidelines were developed in 1998, but the airlines staved them off by lobbying Congress, and a 1999 study indicated the proposed rules probably would hurt the situation more than help.

But just because the incoming administration has indicated it will shy away from new regulations in general, there are signs of trouble that it should not, and cannot, ignore. One is the trend toward consolidation, as symbolized in deals moving forward that would give just two airlines, American and United, a competitive stranglehold, with half of the entire air-travel market.

Another is that Congress is becoming increasingly irritated with the decline of passenger service. It's become a bipartisan problem, with Sen. John McCain of Arizona one of the noisiest critics. Also, the Bush administration will inherit the only predatory-pricing lawsuit filed since deregulation took effect more than two decades ago. The government has charged that American elbowed competition aside at its Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, hub by cutting fares and offering more flights, then raised fares and cut flights once competitors withdrew from the market.

One way for the Bush administration to get off to a good start with the public would be to unleash Norman Mineta, the knowledgeable transportation secretary-designate, with instructions to quietly nudge the airlines toward better service, perhaps with covert threats of greater regulation if they don't shape up. If Mr. Mineta could succeed, no one would remember that this is an administration opposed to regulation. And George W. Bush could go down in history as the president who made the planes run on time.



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