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Terminal Sickness

Until 1978, the United States viewed airline service as a “public convenience and necessity,” and used a government agency—the Civil Aeronautics Board, or CAB—to assign routes and set fares. This regulation was designed to ensure that citizens in cities like Cincinnati received service roughly equal, in quality and price, to that provided to other comparably sized communities like Charlotte. The government also made sure that smaller cities maintained vital links to the national air network.


In 1978, however, a group of liberals including Ralph Nader, Ted Kennedy, Kennedy’s then Senate aide Stephen Breyer, and an economist named Alfred Kahn, whom President Jimmy Carter chose to run the CAB, conjured up a plan to drive down the cost of airline fares by fostering more price competition among airlines. Though they called it “deregulation,” the practical effect of eliminating the CAB, especially after subsequent administrations abandoned antitrust enforcement as well, was to shift control of the airline industry from experts answerable to the public to corporate boardrooms and Wall Street.