Fare Treatment

When the Senate Commerce Committee decided to hold a hearing on April 30 about the high air fares paid by travelers from mid-size cities, the setting it just happened to choose was Des Moines. Can this possibly have anything to do with the fact that 1) the Commerce Committee chairman, John McCain, is running for president, and 2) that a certain crucial early caucus takes place in Iowa? A May 1 account in the Des Moines Register , which is famous for its shrewd political coverage, inexplicably failed to make this last point. Although Chatterbox deplores the tendency of journalists to translate all policy issues into stories about political maneuvering, in this instance the political maneuvering would seem to have merited at least a passing mention.

The Register article didn’t score especially high points for policy analysis, either. It’s clear from McCain’s own opening statement   that air fares in Iowa have not, in fact, gone up all that much. Citing a report by the General Accounting Office, McCain said the average one-way air fare had increased from $160 in 1991 to $210 in 1998. That’s about seven bucks a year, an underwhelming annual inflation rate of 4 percent. (For most of that period, the Consumer Price Index rose about 3 percent annually.) The Register didn’t even mention the GAO statistic. To get really impressive rip-off figures, McCain had to cite “walk-up” fares, i.e, the price you pay when you go to an airport to buy your ticket for a flight that’s just about to leave. Chatterbox has never bought an airline ticket this way in his life, because it’s so notoriously expensive; but it was the walk-up figures that the Register cited. The first walk-up rip-off example McCain mentioned was a round-trip ticket from Cedar Rapids to Washington, D.C., that last week was selling for $1,074. Hmm. Does John McCain know anyone who might have frequent occasion to buy a spur-of-the-moment ticket from Cedar Rapids to D.C.? The good news, Chatterbox supposes, is that McCain doesn’t always travel by corporate jet.

–Timothy Noah