United is already nationalized — in Wyoming

Laramie Regional Airport seen from the sky. You can only imagine the wind

There are two flights in and out of Laramie Regional Airport on most days. It’s a one-gate airport full of people shuffling grumpily and trying to pretend no one else is there in that distinctly Wyoming way.

But it’s a lot of fun to fly in and out of Laramie. There are worse ways to start your day than stepping out onto a windy runway at dawn and seeing the sun come up over the mountains. On a clear day, you get a complete aerial tour of the rugged, low-slung Laramie Range. And best of all, you can usually tack on a connection to Laramie to any trip to and from Denver for only about $100.

Air travel to Laramie is affordable solely because of a federal initiative called the Essential Air Service program. Set up in the 1970’s, the EAS is basically a system of subsidizing air service to 150 or so rural communities, about a third of which are in Alaska. If this seems like the kind of generous program you’d have expected to get the neoliberal axe decades ago, consider that most airports kept open by the EAS are in deep-red congressional districts. Laramie is of course no exception.

Flights to Laramie are enjoyable and affordable because they’ve been deemed a public good and are supported by tax dollars as such. Maybe taxpayers in major urban areas don’t benefit (unless they want to go to Wyoming), but everyone else wins, airlines included. It just so happens that the airline benefiting from the EAS at Laramie Regional Airport is United.

By now, you’ve heard about the guy getting beaten up on the United flight. One bloodied passenger’s suffering has given us a whole host of good, righteous takes, with many more surely to come.

But why is United an ungodly monstrosity elsewhere, and reasonably fun to travel with at my tiny home airport? I vividly remember one flight from Denver to Laramie that was held up for about 15 minutes because a teenaged passenger had left her phone in the terminal. The pilot didn’t care, probably because he was in such a good mood about the easy flight ahead of him. This kind of feel-good thing happens all the time on highly subsidized rural routes.

I almost wish the distinction here were purely anecdotal, so I could make the moral of the story that everything that happens in Wyoming is somehow better. That’s not the case. The branch of United that operates in Laramie exists in a separate realm in which we’ve decided that air travel should be accessible, broadly socially useful, and by implication more humane. All of this works only because of political quirks that have kept a good Carter-era program from being gutted. United is nice to you in Laramie because they’ve been partially nationalized.

Air travel’s status as a protected public good in rural areas is, circa 2017, almost accidental. Imagine how great things would be if we intentionally extended that genial protection to all air travel. At least then, you’d be able to call your senator if you got beat up on a plane by a cop.