Airlines and Regulations

Rakesh Wadhwa
The Himalayan Times , 03 Jan 2005

 

The world including Nepal has realized the disservice caused to all of us by the state running businesses. Worldwide privatization of government assets has taken place on a grand scale.

However, most people still maintain that regulation by state is essential. Poor service by private organizations is the reason why many of us want government oversight.

In an article on domestic private airlines in the 19-25 November issue of Nepali Times by 'Artha Beed', the service - or rather the lack of it - was given by him as a reason for wanting the government to step in. He said that free markets need government regulators to be successful.

Not so. Let us find out what went wrong. When private airlines first took off, the staff was enthusiastic and well groomed, service was warm, and flights were on time. Let us agree with Artha that service and courtesy has since vanished.

Let us, however, compare the situation now with what was prevailing at the time when RNAC was the only airline. Perhaps Artha is too young to remember. People used to queue up overnight to get tickets, service was non-existent, and the staff attitude said, 'put up with us or walk to your destination'. However, bad the situation now is, it is infinitely better than at the time of RNAC's monopoly.

Apart from the impossibility of government regulators forcing the airline's staff to smile (Artha's desire), regulations boost costs, empower corrupt bureaucracies, and achieve little.

Does it mean that Artha will remain permanently frustrated? Is there no way to make private airlines come upto his expectations? Fortunately, there are ways to improve efficiency and service without the heavy hand of the government.

Ending RNAC's monopoly was good. What wasn't good was prohibiting foreign airlines from flying on domestic routes. If you want world class service, then you must let world class companies compete in your markets.

This is not only true of airline business but of all businesses. India was no better. Under the anti-foreign-investment raj of Indira Gandhi, protected businesses produced shoddy goods and customers got lousy service. Now, foreign investment where permitted is changing that.

India which produced the ugly 'ambassador', even for which there was a waiting period, now offers its consumers an unlimited array of world-class cars. Its autos and their components are exported to many countries. Would this have happened under the protective regime of the Neheru-Indira era? Never.

Nepal does not need more government regulations but opening up of its market including the domestic airline market to free and unfettered competition. Then it will be companies which best serve the interests of the Nepali consumer which will thrive.

A word of caution here is necessary. Open and free competition does not mean that private businesses, be they airline or any other, will always meet all of the customers expectations. It only means that customers will have a choice and most will be satisfied most of the time. All customers cannot always be satisfied. Airlines, for example, can only provide the level of service which the public is prepared to pay for.

While travelling within the US, I find that airlines do not serve much more than a packet of peanuts and a soft drink. This is because the US airlines have found that people travel on basis of cheap fares. The preference of people is not for fancy service and gourmet food but low ticket prices. Customers want rock bottom fares and that is what they get. They can always pick up-food of their choice at the airport's fast-food restaurants and are unwilling to pay extra for food and service inside the aircraft.

It is possible that even after the domestic airline market is opened to foreign competition Artha still does not get gourmet food served to him on his half hour flight to Pokhara. This would only be if most travelers value cheaper flights which do not factor in the cost of Artha's choice of food and drinks.

But again if Artha has resources he should have options. He could buy a plane, hire his own pilot and airhostess, and have food of his choice served to him. Good luck Mr. Beed.

(The writer an economist and a proponent of free markets contributes to leading international dailies. Contact e-mail:evrest@mos.com.np )