Taking Flight

Hardly a few days went by this summer without some media mention of the commercial airline industry and what shambles it is in.

Hoping to engage and enrage everyday travelers, print and television outlets told horror stories of how a contract dispute among United Airlines pilots was wreaking havoc with business and pleasure flyers alike. Those reports were most often followed by warnings that the U.S. aviation industry--currently being pushed to its operational limits--could only get worse from here on in.

While there is some truth in the warnings--the air transportation sector does have serious problems that it must address--the doomsday predictions are far too gloomy. In fact, almost 22 years since the U.S. airline industry was deregulated, it is by far the best time to be a frequent flyer--particularly if you are young.

Thanks to the Internet and to the huge growth in the industry since deregulation, air travelers can fly to more places, more safely and more cheaply now than ever before in our nation's history.

The 1978 decision to bring competition to the market started this ball rolling. Today's commercial airline marketplace contrasts dramatically with the industry when it was still regulated by the government. Then, federal regulators told the airlines what airports they could serve and with what frequency. The fares they could offer were also left up to government control, leaving the airline companies to compete for business based on the type of service that they offered.

Now, airlines have significantly more (though not complete) freedom to chose where they fly and they compete more vigorously (although not perfectly) for their customers based on fares, service and frequent flyer programs. You may not take the same route, but if you want to fly from Boston to London, there are plenty of air carriers fighting for your business. What's more, deregulation has spurred huge efficiency gains in the market.

But in terms of benefits to flyers, the Internet is revolutionizing the way we travel just as radically as deregulation itself. The creation of several self-service on-line travel agencies has given consumers a tremendous new power to search for low fares and select different types of airline flights. And the success of two of the more established on-line travel sites, travelocity.com and expedia.com, has further paved the way for myriad other websites that allow users to search for low plane fares in any number of ways. Sites such as priceline.com even allow consumers to bid for surplus seats, while most of the major airlines sell bargain basement "e-saver" fares through their websites and e-mail databases.

The result is that travelers who are Internet savvy and have semi-flexible schedules (a.k.a. college students) are huge winners. Using just one or two different sites can provide a consumer with several possible flights; using three or four websites will almost certainly come up with the lowest fare. Even flying with little advance notice need not cost the astronomical amounts it once did.