Another “blue ribbon” panel to fix the airline industry

It’s been a tough month year decade for the airline industry. In the United States, it’s lost $58.5 billion and cut 158,000 jobs. There never seems to be an answer, and news of an industry in jeopardy has become routine. So, .

But, it will be different this time. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says it will not be “just another advisory committee.”

On his Department of Transportation blog, LaHood writes, “I am not commissioning some report to fill space on my bookshelf. This committee will make a difference.”

He continues:

“Look, without a financially strong aviation industry, we will be unable to compete in domestic and international commerce. We could also fall behind in addressing our own infrastructure needs. So we must begin this important conversation in order to ensure a viable, competitive U.S. aviation industry.”

But, he has his work cut out for him, as does the advisory committee. The estimated price tag to fix the most vexing problems the industry faces is $20 billion. And, many of the recommendations from the last two panels were never implemented.

A new air traffic control system, based on GPS technology, is at the top of the list, but it’s years away. It could save us $40 billion a year in lower fuel and labor costs, not to mention trimming a lot a time from the 740 million people who take to the skies. But, the $20 billion price tag is frightening, especially for airlines that are perpetually behind the financial 8-ball. The other possible wallet belongs to the taxpayer. Anyone want to pay more?

Oh, taxes could go up again if new environmental legislation is passed, so buckle up for more.

On the subject of taxes, the airline industry gripes that it gets hit worse than liquor and tobacco companies (well, except maybe rollers of loose cigarette tobacco). This gives them even fewer financial options to improve equipment and service. For airline shareholders, Jim May, top dog of the Air Transport Association, puts the lost value at around $24.5 billion. Yeah, I spelled it because there’d be a lot of zeroes otherwise. Local and state taxes have gone up, applying even more pressure. But, the other side of this is that taxes are a fact of life for any company, and the airlines should suck it up and move on. Let’s face it: with the U.S. economy in its current state, nobody’s getting tax cuts anytime soon.

Foreign money, the airlines say, would make it easier. Right now, foreign investors’ abilities to invest in U.S. airlines are limited because of national defense considerations. But, this is probably a dated risk, according to Carlos Bonilla, who advised former President Bush (the recent one) on transportation matters. The airlines would still be subject to U.S. regulation, regardless of who owns them.