Following up on my post from yesterday, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) regulated U.S. airline rates and routes from the 1930s through the 1970s. It also kept mountains of data. Aspiring Ph.D. candidates found worthy dissertation material from the agency’s files. The research lent support to an important idea—regulation was failing in this market—but no one listened to these young academic scribblers.
By the early 70s, an established academic produced a groundbreaking treatise arguing for sensible regulation. Alfred Kahn would soon make the jump from academic to regulator—of public utilities in the State of New York, not airlines.
By the mid-1970s, criticism of airline regulation had moved from academics to economists in think tanks (Brookings, AEI) and in government. At an economic conference on inflation convened by the Ford Administration, the delegates focused unexpectedly on a different idea: existing regulations were producing high prices. Yet as every economist in Washington knows, many reform ideas never become policy. Then came the political entrepreneurs.
First, Senator Ted Kennedy. An ambitious member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chairman of the subcommittee on administrative procedure, Kennedy saw an opportunity to attack the over-regulated and under-competitive airline industry by critically examining the rules it played by.
Most judiciary subcommittee hearings were mind-numbingly boring, but airlines were sexy, and Kennedy turned the CAB hearings into high theatre, trotting out real but outrageous examples. A flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco (intrastate and thus not CAB-regulated) cost half as much as a flight from Washington to Boston (interstate and CAB-regulated). Even the dimmest reporter could connect the dots. The CAB looked bad. Kennedy looked good, as did the odds for reform.
Then the Carter Administration tapped Kahn to run the CAB. He allowed “experiments” in price flexibility (Super Saver fares). He approved new routes. Eventually, he questioned the agency’s purpose. The CAB had to go. This meant Kahn had to sell a very big idea to the madmen in authority, the decision-makers in Congress.
An accomplished economist who dabbled in theatre on the side, Kahn played his role perfectly. The former academic scribbler was funny, smart, patient and on point. He was a master communicator with press and politicians alike.
Kahn built on Kennedy, who built on the work of intellectuals in Washington’s think tanks and policy circles, who in turn built on good academic research. Importantly, he found allies across the political spectrum, from the American Conservative Union to Common Cause, from business interests to consumer groups. This odd mix prevented easy dismissal of reform as the pet project of the left, the right, or any special interest.
With passage of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, Congress closed the CAB and left behind an unprecedented example of radical reform. A better idea had made its way from academic scribblers, through the intellectuals and on to madmen in authority, who were compelled to act. Yet so much of the story hinges on the actions of Kennedy and Kahn—two very different individuals, two very effective political entrepreneurs.