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Oct 2001 • Vol 1, No. 5 •

Terrorist Attacks Highlight National Transportation Crisis

By Art LeClair

As the nation mourns the tragic deaths of thousands of innocent people in New York, western Pennsylvania and the Capitol, it is time to take a hard look at the chaotic state of transportation across the United States.

Unlike anywhere else in the world, commercial airlines have become an essential part of everyday life in the US. Millions of people depend on them to safely carry themselves and their families home for the holidays and away on vacation.

The most regular patron of the airlines, however, is the business traveler who pays exorbitant prices, to fly from city to city, usually on short notice. These costs then become tax write-offs for the corporations. But this luxury also comes at a tremendous cost to all Americans.

One aspect of this cost is the huge subsidies given to the airlines in the form of more than 260 airports that they utilize, as well as the nation’s air traffic control system which allows them to fly in a generally safe environment. The story doesn’t end there, however.

The hundreds of billions of dollars required to maintain and upgrade this system must also be taken into consideration when discussing the comparatively paltry funding set aside for mass transit and national passenger railroad service.

Prior to the tragic events of September 11, members of both houses of congress, along with a plethora of government bureaucrats were making plans for the dismantling of Amtrak. Since then, the national passenger railroad has experienced a 20 percent increase in the number of riders on its long distance trains.

On the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., the numbers are even higher. Amtrak’s Acela Express service, the long awaited high-speed trains which had been carrying a mere 15 percent capacity before the carnage, are now virtually filled.

It is sad that it took such horrific events to show the viability of and need for Amtrak, but suddenly there is renewed interest on the part of some government officials to invest in the passenger railroad.

One obvious outcome of the attacks is the exposure of how easy it is to circumvent the security measures in place at the nation’s airports. Another is the speed with which the airlines as a group capitalized on the tragedy.

Taking advantage of the ugly situation at “ground zero,” all of the major domestic air carriers announced that unless the federal government bailed them out, they were going to file for bankruptcy. To back up their threat, they proceeded to fire more than 100,000 employees.

In a matter of hours special hearings were scheduled for the heads of the airline industry to plead their case before panels of politicians anxious to lend a hand. Thus far upwards of $20 billion has been set aside in direct funding and low interest loans for these cash hungry corporations. There was little mention of the fired employees returning to work.

Airline industry already in crisis before 9/11

The shocking acts which paralyzed the country were not the cause of the great economic crisis the CEO’s had described, though. The airline industry in the US has been in crisis since Jimmy Carter signed into law the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.

While deregulation has fulfilled the promise of making travel affordable to many travelers, it has also provided an environment in which just two carriers, United and American Airlines control more than half of all airline seating capacity nationwide. As for the “level playing field” to open the industry to new development and competition, the facts prove otherwise.

The airline industry has experienced one economic boondoggle after another. Pan Am and TWA, the first major airlines in US history, are a perfect illustration of the effects of deregulation. Pan Am no longer exists and TWA, a mere shadow of its former self, has been in financial turmoil since Carl Icahn acquired the airline in 1986 and forced a crippling strike by the carrier’s flight attendants.

Eastern Airlines which dominated the industry from Maine to Miami was destroyed by another Wall Street bandit, Frank Lorenzo. Readers might be interested in knowing that several of the unions at TWA sided with Icahn as a “white knight,” when Lorenzo attempted to buy controlling interest in that airline.

Since deregulation, more than 130 airlines have filed for bankruptcy and many others have been taken over or merged into larger carriers. Another of deregulation’s offspring is the numerous, now defunct, no frills, fly by the seat of your pants discount ventures like ValuJet and TransAir, with their shoddy maintenance and safety practices.

The failure of deregulation

In 1996, when pressed by congress, the General Accounting Office of the federal government (GAO) reviewed the impact of deregulation and found that, contrary to its intent, it had resulted in the creation of barriers to entry into the industry by newcomers and continued to limit competition in key domestic markets.

Airline companies started up after deregulation were severely handicapped because the established carriers held a virtual monopoly on exclusive-use gate leases at the nation’s airports.

With the forthcoming changes in operating procedures, along with the estimated $2 billion cost of new security measures, combined with the tremendous drop off in the number of people flying, the only tangible result of deregulation, reasonable air fares, is about to disappear.

So how is the public transportation crisis in the United States to be resolved? From this reporter’s perspective there is but one. Nationalization without indemnification!

A positive response

A positive response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001 would be to operate all public transportation industries that are now being heavily subsidized—bus, train or plane—as genuine, non-profit public utilities.

Furthermore, these industries should be under the control of the workers themselves, to guarantee that the services will be efficient, safe and accessible to all. This would also provide those responsible for the maintenance of the system the assurance of knowing that shortcuts presently employed by all the nation’s common carriers will be eliminated and the safety of passengers and rail workers be prioritized.

I’m not talking about phony “nationalizations” like Amtrak, which remains to this day privately owned and operated in the interests of private stock holders, primarily the former railroads which Amtrak replaced.

Public transit should benefit society

This would require the end to the for-profit system which can only result in the chaotic morass that public transit is today. Only by making these services run for the benefit of society itself, will a modern and workable transportation network be built.

Until such time as this has been accomplished, including the provision of open access to all financial records by the workers themselves, to make sure things are done honestly, the ongoing destruction of public transportation as well as the living and working conditions of the working class in the US will continue to deteriorate.





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