Forest Fees were in 1997 an isolated example of the neoliberal privatization agenda at work. Few of the people with whom I then communicated even knew there was such a thing as a 'privatization agenda' or that the intended outcome was what one might reasonably call, "the Corporate Takeover of Everything". Many doubted the very existence of such an agenda. And while a decade ago the privatization agenda was already (albeit only conceptually) broad-based and far-reaching, examples of its implementation were comparatively few and far between.
Starting a decade ago, I focused attention upon what I called "The Corporate Takeover of Nature" while trying to raise general awareness for the larger issue of which recreation user fees and the associated Disneyfication of outdoor recreation were merely a small component.
Today examples abound. The tools and techniques that were pioneered and perfected with the Forest Fees/privatization experiment are being employed cookie-cutter fashion. Today the agenda can be observed everywhere and the takeover of everything is proceeding at warp speed and largely unchecked.
Appended is an Op-Ed from the Chicago Tribune which explores "solutions" to the growing problems associated with air travel. I share it in an effort to present an nearly perfect translation of Forest Privatization tools into Travel Privatization tools.
Those familiar with the privatization of outdoor recreation will see the incredible similarities -- similarities that extend right down to the fine details of technique. Those unfamiliar with the issue are invited to visit the website of the organization that claims to have invented the very word "privatization. The address is www.privatization.org --- and YES, these folks also lay claim to Forest Fees.
I'd just add that in the appended article, the $15 bag fee is of little importance. Focus your attention upon that fee and you'll miss the story completely. The guts of this article are found in what are presented as "long term" answers.
American Airlines' plan to charge $15 a bag has people outraged, of course. No one wants to start paying for a service that forever has been free. But if you think $15 a bag is the biggest headache in flying these days, well, you're not flying much these days.
Air travel has become an enormous headache, and it's going to get worse. Prepare for a summer from hell in the skies, says the Air Transport Association of America, which represents major U.S. airlines.
Passengers will face packed airports and higher prices, and have fewer flights available. Throw in labor unrest, summer storms, and the inevitable delays and cancellations. This comes after a terrible spring: nearly one of every three flights was late or canceled in March.
There's almost nothing we can do about this summer. But long term, there are some answers to make air travel something better than a trip to the dentist:
•Spin off the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration into a free-standing government corporation that would get its revenue from user fees and have access to the capital markets.
The FAA could continue to be the uber-overseer but would no longer be responsible for managing the system. It would focus on its mission as aviation safety regulator. This would allow the FAA to move full-speed ahead on replacing its antiquated ground-to-air radar-based system with one based on global-positioning satellites. That would reduce travel times and increase aviation capacity by allowing more planes in the air at one time. This system is sorely needed, but it has been stalled in Congress by battles over who will pay for it. As things stand, "NextGen," as it's called, won't be fully operational for 25 years. A privately funded system could more quickly raise the money through user fees.
A global-positioning system would need fewer facilities and controllers. A privately funded agency could make those radical operational changes without the political pressures that hamstring the FAA, which is dependent on appropriations from Congress. Canada, Germany and other countries have moved to privatize air traffic control.
•More capacity in the air must be matched by more capacity on the ground. There are only so many airports and only so many miles of runways. The solution is to lay more concrete. Build more runways-something that is well under way at O'Hare International Airport. Until that's accomplished, flight capacity at busy airports such as O'Hare will be constrained.
•Left to their own competitive urges, airlines will continue to schedule more flights in peak hours than can be handled at major airports. And why wouldn't they? If some airlines responsibly pulled back and cut their schedules, others would swoop in and fill the void. The responsible airlines would lose business to its competitors and there would still be too many flights. (This is precisely what happened when caps were briefly lifted at O'Hare.) The number of daily flights are restricted in some manner by the FAA in Chicago, New York and Washington.
Congestion pricing is the solution to this problem. The U.S. Department of Transportation should changes its rules, which require landing fees to be based on the weight of the plane, so airports can experiment with different formats. Weight-based fees make it cheaper for airlines to use smaller planes, such as regional jets, even though that clogs airports and air space. Weight-based fees also mask how much private aviation contributes to the congestion problems at major airports. Landing fees based on something other than weight-how much the plane contributes to congestion or number of passengers handled, for example-would make it cheaper for airlines to offer fewer flights on bigger planes. Those landing fees should vary by time of day and day of week and should be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Chicago to New York at 8 a.m. Monday or 6 p.m. Friday would, and should, merit a much higher price than Chicago to Topeka at noon Wednesday.
•Privatize airports. The Brookings Institute's Clifford Winston is pessimistic about improving air travel in the U.S. as long as public sector airports rule. The problems of delays and lack of capacity don't lie with the airlines, he argues. "It's not their infrastructure. They do what they're allowed to do. The source of the problems and the solutions lie totally with the public sector."
Chicago is in the early stages of privatizing Midway Airport and the best development plan for the new south suburban airport at Peotone involves a private operator. Imagine the competition that could evolve some day if Chicago's three main airports were operated by three different private firms, which would be key to avoiding a monopoly, each competing fiercely with the others on cost and reliability of service.
No, none of these ideas will save you from paying $15 to check a bag. The market will decide whether that sticks. People will factor in the baggage cost as they surf for low airfares. If American is still competitive, the baggage fee will stay. If fliers go elsewhere, American will have to give up the fee.
The ideas above will go much further, though, to bring lower costs and higher reliability to the airline industry.
These ideas will have to overcome powerful resistance to change. But absent radical changes, the air system will only deteriorate. More than 1 billion passengers are expected to take to the skies in 2016, up from the 750 million who will fly this year. If the nation doesn't add capacity on the ground and in the air, those fliers will have to pack plenty of Tom Clancy novels for the long waits in the terminals and on the tarmacs.
Bill Willers is emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh now living in Middleton, WI. He is founder of Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN) and editor of Learning to Listen to the Land and Unmanaged Landscapes, both from (more...)