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Joe Nocera

Climbing Down Into Airline Hell, Year by Year

People wanted cheap flights. They got what they paid for.
Are we having fun yet?

Are we having fun yet?

Photographer: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If you’re an airline passenger of a certain age, you remember what it was like in those years before 1978. You remember the expansive legroom (36 inches from seat back to back rest!), the empty middle seats (the typical plane was around 60 percent full), the hot meals (served with metal knives and forks), the lack of fees, even the ease with which you could glide from the ticket counter to the airplane (no TSA!). Though the airline industry had lost its sheen of glamour by the 1970s, flying was still more pleasant than not.

Then came 1978, when the administration of President Jimmy Carter deregulated the industry. The theory, propounded most forcefully by Alfred Kahn, a Cornell University economist who was chairman of the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Board, was that freeing airlines from the shackles of regulation would bring about competition and lower prices.