Deregulation, road to monopoly; consumers beware

Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2001

One day last week the business section in my favorite newspaper featured two stories. Together, they form a snapshot of where American business is trending.

First came the bad news that anyone wanting to use a pay telephone soon will have to ante up 50 cents instead of the present 35, or 25 four years ago. This cheerless announcement comes from SBC Communications, the telephone conglomerate that owns Southwestern Bell, Ameritech, Pacific Bell, SNET and Nevada Bell. It controls almost a half-million pay phones in 13 states, nearly one-fourth of all pay phones in America.

What gets to me is not just that another big-fisted monopoly is gouging everyone, but the sweet reason it gives. "Use has gone down," says the SBC spokesman, and the company needs to compensate. Do its wizards think they can make more people use their product by doubling the price?

There are occasions when we have little choice. Away from home or office and not packing a cellphone, we've no alternative to pay phones if we need to contact someone. It's not hard to see why people have stopped using pay phones where there's an option. If it's information we want, or help in making a connection, it's harder to find a human being to tell our problem to than it'd be to get a billboard poster girl to come down and kiss us.

Just a few years back, remember, telephone companies assured us that deregulation was the answer. Just cut them loose from the heavy hand of government and presto! We'd see cheaper, swifter, more personal service. "Competition" would bring that about.

Well, here we are at the pay phone needing to call home. We're getting only recorded voices telling us the number we dialed is no longer a working number, or that we forgot the area code, or to dial 1 if we want the odds at Pimlico, or touch the pound sign if we want the latest stock market quotations. If our number answers, and it's a recording, there goes our 50 cents.

Then, of course, there's AT&T, from whom I got a copy of a document last week concerning long-distance fees at my residence. It refers to an enclosed "agreement." If I get the drift, the letter says AT&T doesn't have to file "tariffs" with the FCC any more; and the "agreement" says it may change the rates whenever it chooses, and if I want to keep getting service, I'll pay whatever rate the company posts on the Web site, and otherwise, don't bother.

Here's some of the language: "We may change the price ... from time to time. ... By paying for the services, you agree to the prices. ... If you do not agree ... do not use the services."

More and more, that's how things are. It's the way of monopoly, management ever more remote from customer. Folks in my town just got increases in gas and electric charges. Don't bother.

The second story that caught my eye that day had to do with a new phenomenon named "air rage." The Association of Flight Attendants was petitioning the Federal Aviation Administration for rules to protect flight attendants from a contagion of temper tantrums, a few violent, among passengers aboard commercial flights.

Five years ago, said union President Patricia Friend, no attendant ever worried about "going to work and getting beat up." Last year, however, the Air Transport Association estimates there were 3,000 to 4,000 incidents of bombastic passenger flare-ups.

Each of the attendants who deal with the needs of travelers on ever-bigger, multi-seated, more closely packed planes is forced to serve at least twice as many customers on each flight as just a few years back. Their workload doubled, they deserve all the help, protection and understanding they can get. They shouldn't bear the brunt of the customers' growing frustration and anger.

But let's look at it, too, from the passenger's viewpoint. Airline travel, once an enjoyable adventure, is the pits! Crowded and crammed together, sardines in a can, herded and harried like cattle, to feed investors' demands for higher profits, passengers are the fall guys of airline deregulation.

It has bred not competition but monopoly. Fewer airlines, higher fares, less comfort. Once coveted pilots' and attendants' jobs are now less desirable. The way of monopoly.

More deregulation? Consumers and workers, beware.

Jim Wright of Fort Worth is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. (c) 2001, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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