Alfred Kahn's Legacy: Cheap Flights

December 28, 2010

Sonari Glinton

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If you've spent time stuck in an airport this holiday season, but got a cheap ticket, you may have Alfred Kahn to thank -- or blame.

The noted economist, who died in Ithaca, N.Y., on Monday at age 93, taught economics at Cornell University for more than 60 years. But it was his brief interlude in the Carter administration for which he'll be remembered.

Kahn was former chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, and he presided over the deregulation of the airline industry -- the dismantling of a system that regulated where airlines could fly and how much they could charge.

"I am very happy about the intensity of competition in the industry," Kahn said in an NPR interview in 1986. He said then, and would continue to say, that competition had one effect: empowering the consumer.

"Uniform low fares to all comers, no restrictions, no advance purchases, no staying over a weekend, has been a very powerful influence in bringing travelers the benefits of price competition," he said.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst, says Kahn's influence was felt far beyond the airline industry.

"A lot of people regard Reagan as the architect of deregulation for so many segments of the economy," he says. "Yet, in terms of meaningful transformation, it happened under President Carter with Kahn's actions."

Those actions brought cheap travel to millions. The sacrifice? Comfort. That was something Kahn freely admitted.

But for Kahn, flying five hours with only a tiny bag of peanuts was better than not flying at all. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.