Southwest pays billions for botched travel. What about the FAA?

When Southwest Airlines suffered a historic meltdown during the Christmas tourist season, canceling nearly 17,000 flights and stranding 2 million passengers, politicians pounced like travelers on another bag of free peanuts. If only the federal government had more control over air traffic, they cried, we could have avoided such a terrible situation.

However, just days later, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air traffic control, caused a system-wide suspension of travel all airlines, the same ones who condemned Southwest have mostly disappeared, like Amelia Earhart.

There’s an important lesson in all of this: Companies fail, but those responsible usually pay a high price for screwing up. When government agencies fail, not so much.

As the Southwest debacle unfolded, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg appeared on cable news and spoke about the harassment of the airline’s CEO, telling CNN, “I made it clear that our department will hold them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, how get them out of this situation, as well as to make sure that this cannot happen again.”

As many as 15 senators, including Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), have sent a letter to Southwest demanding answers about why the airline once best known for low fares and leading passengers ruined vacations for millions of passengers. Warren went even further, insisting that the failure of Southwest meant that the planned merger of low-cost carrier Spirit and JetBlue had to be put on ice faster than champagne in first class.

There’s no question that Southwest has screwed up, largely because it relies on outdated, low-tech crew scheduling software and because its leadership has lost focus on customer satisfaction since its late, legendary founder Herb Kelleher retired more than a decade ago.

It is already being penalized by clients and investors—losing more than the billions of dollars predicted. It has squandered an incalculable amount of customer goodwill that it had built up since its first flight in 1971. CEO Bob Jordan will be stuck in the equivalent of a middle seat surrounded by screaming babies for the foreseeable future:

But what about the FAA? When its Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) system, which gives pilots information about flights, crashed because of a corrupted file, the agency stopped all domestic air travel, causing 1,700 cancellations and 9,000 delays that screwed up air travel for days.

Secretary Buttigieg has promised to get to the bottom of it and update the system with the enthusiasm and determination of a Traffic Safety Administration agent taking away your nail clippers. Looking forward to the next FAA reauthorization bill, he says he will make sure the FAA “has everything it needs in terms of systems, resources and personnel.”

Don’t expect much to happen anytime soon. Rep. Pete Stauber (R–Minn.) introduced legislation to modernize the NOTAM system in 2019 and 2021, but it ultimately came to nothing. And when it comes to the air traffic control system that actually manages all takeoffs and landings, the FAA has been deicing its wings for decades. As Reason Foundation analyst Marc Scribner points out, the FAA is “about two decades behind” other countries when it comes to directing air traffic.

Back in 2009. Reason produced a video about how Canada and other countries have privatized air traffic control and seen delays decrease and safety increase. In the US we are still stuck in the old days.

What would actually lead to safer, cheaper and less disruptive air travel? More deregulation of the kind that happened in the late 1970s, sponsored by President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and consumer activist Ralph Nader. Inflation-adjusted fares fell 60 percent between 1980 and 2020, which explains how air travel went from being something that only businessmen and the wealthy did to common practice. By 2018, 88 percent of Americans had flown by plane.

But too many aspects of air travel remain under government inept control stuck in the past. Foreign-owned airlines are prevented from competing with domestic carriers in the name of national security. The number, location, and operation of airports are controlled by different levels of government, leading to insane monopolies and fewer options for flying in places like Atlanta, Denver, and Las Vegas.

Even in today’s less and less free market, Southwest will have to fight like hell to win back customers by keeping prices low and performance high. The FAA—and government in general—doesn’t face the same pressure.

We’ll see which ones solve the problems before the next Christmas travel season.

Produced by Nick Gillespie; edited by Danielle Thompson; audio by Ian Keyser.

Photos: Ana Ramirez/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; E. Jason Wambsgans/TNS/Newscom; Caroline Brehman/CQ roll call/Newscom; Michael Ho Wai Lee/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Ana Ramirez/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Music: “Oh Christmas Tree” by Falconer via Artlist; “Happy Hour” by Evert Za via Artlist; “Echoes of the Past (Instrumental Version)” by Max Hixon via Artlist

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