You couldn’t get a better picture of the contradictions of the contemporary world than the profoundly dualistic feelings one is getting in the midst of the current crisis afflicting the US airline industry. With American Airlines having cancelled about a thousand flights, Southwest a few hundred more, and smaller carriers pulling a whole range of short term hops – all of it due to two Federal Aviation Authority staff blowing the whistle on skimped safety checks – the proper reaction of the frequent flier should be to thank the heavens for these two honest men, risking their careers and the wrath of a multibillion dollar industry to keep us safe.

Which is why one’s first thought is you STUPID STUPID men, what is this going to do to our cheap flights? Air-hopping round the states isn’t as cheap as Europe, where Ryanair will regularly provide free flights to drive their competition further into the ground, but you can still get between major cities for 100 bucks or so, more than it was during the crazy early years of deregulation, but basically competitive with rail, car and even bus.

Of course everyone knows why profit margins can be cut to the bone – because staff costs have been, and especially safety check hours. Since airline crashes are so rare, and safety checks, if properly observed, done as a multiple fail-safe system, no-one really thinks much about it, except to regard the possibility of falling out of the sky with a measure of fatefulness.

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The real squeeze has come with across-the-board rise in fuel prices, pushing many of the airlines to a knife-edge of viability. In Europe, national carriers are, erm, falling left and right – indeed the whole idea of a national carrier is pretty much over – and one of the reasons they’ve been so squeezed is that there’s a safety limit below which they will not go.

US carriers are not so restrained, relying on the process that has become the operational core of American life – see Iraq, sub-prime etc – never thinking more than a week ahead. So some of the reported shortcuts are pretty hair-raising – exposed wiring, faked paperwork etc. The worst offender has been perky upstart SouthWest, famous for making its hosties where follow-me-home boots and give a safety patter laden with jokes that Don Rickles wouldn’t dare try at the Topeka steakhouse casino 2pm slot. They did perform due safety checks – they just didn’t care what the results were, and kept 40 planes flying, with key FAA officials turning a blind eye.

Personal corruption is not yet fully established here – it’s more part of the Dubya era’s rancid contempt for regulation, and also the realisation that the American economy is so ailing that even the slightest blow to confidence can pull the rug out. Business flying, much of it utterly unnecessary, is exactly the sort of busywork that is keeping the economy ticking over, without itself contributing significantly more to productivity than videoconferencing or group messaging would.

Effectively it supports a whole economic sector – the mega-airports with their vast malls, the swathes of motels that surround them, the expense accounts … all subsequently passed on to the consumer. If oil had shot up to say $200 a barrel a few years back, then video conferencing technology would be vastly more advanced than it is now – currently there is simply no overwhelming demand for it be to genuinely useful.

Yet of course if business travel were to fall in volume, then economies of scale would make cheap personal travel out of reach. One suspects that this is not impossible, depending on the full breadth and depth of the current recession.

Apocalyptic thinking is a foible of the left, and perhaps of this author in particular, and this may be simply a thing apart – airlines gouging whatever profits they can from a lax regime.

But it’s impossible to avoid the thought that it’s yet another symptom of something that that will be more than a mere recession, but the bill for our decade-long free lunch coming a bit earlier than we thought.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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