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Keeping airlines on schedule

THE US Department of Transportation has discovered what many airline passengers already knew - that flight schedules are often works of fiction, if not fantasy. It is commendably moving to ``debunch'' them somewhat. Less commendable is the approach the department is taking. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole has proposed that airlines meet, with a special antitrust exemption, to set flight schedules jointly.

It is disheartening to hear such a proposal from an administration whose record on antitrust has been notably laissez faire, especially with airlines. Indeed, DOT has allowed a couple of mergers - the Northwest-Republic the TWA-Ozark deals - which had troubled even the Reagan Justice Department.

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And the flying public cannot help being troubled by the continuing wave of airline mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies, tending to concentrate the industry in the hands of ever fewer carriers - to the detriment of competition.

The greatest threat to the success of deregulation is the shortage of support facilities for carriers - gates, landing rights, air traffic control. Consumers cannot get the benefits of deregulation and competition unless new carriers can enter the market. It's hard to see how joint scheduling by existing carriers will help them do so.

Another approach to ``debunching'' that bears looking into is having the carriers bid for landing slots and pay more for those at peak times - with the costs presumably passed along to the passengers. The service an airline sells is not just a seat from here to there, but a seat at a particular time - and different travel times have different values.

The expense-account traveler faced with a choice between, say, a peak-time late-afternoon departure vs. a departure the following morning may choose the former, figuring that the surcharge is still less than the cost of a hotel room. A more tightly budgeted traveler faced with the same choice may opt to overnight on a friend's sofa and leave the next morning.

Market forces, in other words, would separate those willing to pay to be part of the rush-hour crowd from those who aren't; rush hour would be less of a rush.

The availability of less expensive off-peak landing rights should help make it possible for a start-up airline to enter a new market, just as the less expensive retail space makes it possible for new merchants to establish themselves.

It is obviously in everyone's interest for airline schedules to be as reliable as possible. But rather than disentangling them by means of some sort of cartel, let's think about how market forces might take care of the problem instead.

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