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{Colorado Springs Gazette, 2012-05-16}

Colorado Springs, a community known for its support of free enterprise, can’t get flights to Ronald Reagan National Airport, named for a champion of free enterprise, despite the willingness of an American company that practices free enterprise to fly there. Why? Because the central planners, socialists, and crony capitalists who know what’s best for us have spoken.

As reported in The Gazette, Frontier Airlines was denied approval to offer flights from Colorado Springs to Washington, DC. Why? Because the right to land an airplane at four of the nation’s busiest airports (O’Hare, LaGuardia, JFK, and Reagan) is managed not by markets, but by bureaucrats. Takeoff and landing slots at these airports are managed by the FAA, in a system that any Soviet central planner would immediately recognize.

Begun in 1969, airport slot allocation is basically unchanged from 40 years ago. It is the bureaucratic allocation of a scarce resource, with all the flexibility and far-seeing wisdom that implies. That’s why Colorado’s congressional delegation and various other Springs notables had to politely beg the Ministry of Plane Landing Privileges (also known as the Department of Transportation) to wave its magic scepter and grant Frontier the right to operate at Reagan-Turning-In-His-Grave-Airport. Unfortunately, they were sent packing. Too bad for us.

Supposedly, landing slots at ultrabusy airports are scarce resources. If that’s true, why not let markets manage them? Could they really be that much worse than the FAA, the DOT, and Congress?

It’s not too hard to imagine what a market in takeoff and landing slots would look like. To have a market, you need to have clear property rights, and the ability to trade them. A tradeable slot would be a right to take off and/or land an airplane at a given time on a given day under given weather conditions. Prices for slots would be set by the market, with more valuable slots occurring during high-volume times and dates.

Worried about barriers to entry? Slots can have expiration periods. Worried about antitrust? Some can be reserved for startups. During bad weather, when fewer slots would be available, larger planes with more passengers would go first, presumably because the airlines that own them would be able to pay more for the slot. That’s a heck of a lot more efficient. The chronic, interminable delays caused by multiple planes sitting on the ground waiting to be released into a slot would be a thing of the past.

And why in the world should a small corporate jet get the same airport privileges as a 737 stuffed to capacity with summer travelers? What’s fair about that?

In its last year, the Bush administration actually floated the idea of auctioning slots at a couple of airports, but the proposal was killed by the Obama administration. Interestingly, not only did the usual lefty suspects oppose it (who believe landing rights are owned by “the people”), but so did the major airlines (who believe landing rights are owned by “the companies”). To make things worse, the DOT insisted that both groups are wrong, believing landing rights are owned by “the government”.

No wonder it’s a nightmare. If everyone thinks they own something, no one does. It’s the worst of all possible worlds.

But if the socialists, the crony capitalists, and the bureaucrats all agree that markets in landing slots are a bad idea, then who’s left to complain? The rest of us: Ordinary people who benefit from cheaper, more reliable air travel.

Ultimately, that’s what markets do: They benefit ordinary people going about the business of leading ordinary lives. Seeing family. Taking vacations. Doing business. It is entrepreneurs, and not politicians or bureaucrats, who best serve our needs, by making things get better and cheaper over time. To do that, however, they need functioning markets. Without those, the rest of us are just players in a rigged game. Politics 1, Colorado Springs 0.