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Ganesh Sitaraman at the Harvard Book Store

Ganesh Sitaraman at The Harvard Book Store
Ganesh Sitaraman at The Harvard Book Store By Courtesy of Sasha C. Hitachi-Kizziah
By Sasha C. Hitachi-Kizziah, Contributing Writer

On Thursday, Nov. 14, the Harvard Book Store welcomed Ganesh Sitaraman and Nicholas Lemann to present Sitaraman’s new book, “Why Flying is Miserable: And How to Fix It.”

A law professor and director of the Vanderbilt Policy Accelerator for Political Economy and Regulation, Sitaraman teaches and writes extensively on topics of constitutional law, the regulatory state, and economic policy.

When asked what prompted his idea for the book, Sitaraman recalled working with several colleagues to write a textbook on regulation across various industries. While writing the chapter on airlines and examining why commercial flying has become so frustrating, Sitaraman made a breakthrough.

“I realized that the story was both really exciting and compelling,” Sitaraman said. “I thought this would be a story that a lot of other people would be interested in too, and that was really the origin of the book.”

Released just in time for the holiday travel season, “Why Flying is Miserable: And How to Fix It” traverses the history of aviation in the United States and explores why the experience of flying has worsened over time.

The book pinpoints a conscious choice made by the government in the 1970s to roll back New Deal regulations in the name of capitalism and competition. The result? The airline industry became an oligopoly fit with airline monopolizers that have received billions in taxpayer dollars but cannot always offer reliable service.

In the 1930s, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), the regulators of aviation, allocated flights to airlines and standardized prices. Because of these price regulations, airlines competed by offering superior service. However, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 phased out the CAB, leaving no government restrictions on flight routes or fares. Airlines could now fly wherever they wanted, and charge what they thought customers would pay.

Economists who pushed for the Deregulation Act were hopeful that market competition would result in the creation of new airlines without loss of routes or quality of service. However, this was not the case. To increase efficiency, airlines adopted a system that used a few major airports as central connecting points. This maximized aircraft use and increased passenger loads, but it also increased air traffic congestion and inconvenient layovers.

Since deregulation in the 1970s, Sitaraman argues travelers have benefited from lower prices and more frequent service on heavily traveled routes. However, to lower fares, airlines have had to cut costs in other ways, often by reducing, eliminating, or charging for amenities that were previously included.

Conversely, on less traveled routes, prices have risen and service has decreased or shut down altogether. Sitaraman explained that since the start of COVID-19, 74 regional airports have lost service from major air carriers.

Sitaraman pointed to this decrease in air service for smaller cities as symptoms of a broken system. To alleviate these issues, he suggests an “NFL style draft” to ensure major airlines service smaller routes at affordable rates. Another solution may require crisis management plans, where airlines prepare for potential shocks to the market. Lastly, Sitaraman emphasized the need for fair pricing with more transparency and uniformity.

When asked about his hopes for this publication, Sitaraman hopes to achieve two goals.

“First, is that it will get people to realize that we don’t have to suffer like we do right now, and that we can make change in policies that will make flying far less miserable and better for ourselves as passengers and for the country. And the second thing is that if enough people read the book and have this different view, that this is a moment where we can try to push people in government to start thinking bigger about the kinds of changes that are possible,” he said.

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