Happy Travels? Will Federal Policy Bring Economics to Airports?

Lynne Kiesling

Today’s a big national travel day, and many of us are flying about. Painful. As we’ve discussed here before, airport takeoff-landing slot congestion pricing would be the most sensible and efficiency-promoting policy, but the FAA, Congress, and the airlines are not inclined to implement anything sensible or efficiency-promoting.

One of the outgrowths of last month’s airline policy meeting was a commitment from the White House to “do something” about airport congestion. This fact sheet outlines the short-term band-aid policy fixes they suggest; most of them are fairly anodyne and somewhat hard to enforce.

But two important things come out of this fact sheet. One is that Congress has failed to act on the FAA modernization legislation currently before it. This failure is appalling, but unfortunately not surprising. The second is that the administration has some pretty strong language in favor of congestion pricing:

The key to solving this problem is managing the demand for flights at overloaded airports. Market-based mechanisms can encourage airlines to spread out their flights more evenly during the day, make better use of neighboring airports, and move the maximum number of passengers on each flight.

Market-based mechanisms like “congestion pricing” are widely accepted and critical to the functioning of many other areas of our economy. Phone and electricity companies balance supply and demand by adjusting their rates during peak usage hours. Airlines themselves smooth out peaks and valleys in demand by varying the prices of their tickets by time of day and week. Applying congestion pricing to airport usage has the potential to make today’s broken system more predictable, more reliable, and more convenient for travelers.

I hope their articulation here becomes more than just political lip service.

Happy travels! Or, at least, not-too-odious travels, to you all.

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