Rich Tucker

Why does an airplane fly?

Most of us assume it’s a delicate balance of aerodynamic principles we’re not smart enough to understand (lift, thrust) combined with skilled piloting. But perhaps that’s not the case. Apparently, as with so many other things, it’s federal intervention that keeps planes aloft. At least, that’s what one would believe from media coverage of the airline industry.

In recent days, concerns raised by regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration led American Airlines to ground its fleet of MD-80 aircraft to fix a wiring problem. The airline cancelled more than 2,400 flights and stranded thousands of passengers. The FAA’s been busy. It also recently fined Southwest Airlines a record $10.2 million for alleged violations involving cracks in some of its planes.

In The Washington Post, columnist Ruth Marcus echoed the conventional media wisdom when she wrote that the real problem is a lack of federal oversight on the airline industry. “The lapses are symptomatic, too, of much deeper problems across the government,” she wrote on April 9. “This administration’s allergy to government intervention and affection for the private sector have contributed to a spate of regulatory failures, from lead in imported toys to dangerous prescription drugs to subprime mortgages.”

But when it comes to airlines, the problem isn’t a lack of regulation, it’s an excess of regulation.

Consider: There are industries where the consumer is several steps removed from the producer. We’ll probably never meet the farmer who grows our veggies, or the day laborer who picks them or the truck driver who delivers them. That may, or may not, mean these industries should be regulated. In any event, they are.

But when it comes to airlines, the companies are working in the harshest light possible. A single mistake can down a plane. If that happens hundreds of people will die, the media will cover it for days and, in all likelihood, the airline will go out of business. Remember Pan Am, TWA and ValuJet? They didn’t last very long after fatal accidents, although ValuJet was reborn as AirTran.

Inside-the-Beltway types can’t grasp this fundamental principle. “Having just put a nervous 10-year-old on a Southwest plane and airily assured her that there was no reason to worry, I found the Southwest story particularly galling.” Marcus wrote.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe Southwest knowingly flew dangerous planes, thus putting hundreds of people, including its customers and employees, in peril. Maybe it was only the intervention of the feds that prevented disaster.

Rich Tucker

Rich Tucker is a communications professional and a columnist for