Simon Calder: Right said Fred, let's have a cut in air fares

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The Independent Travel

Does this sound like you? "I really don't know one plane from the other."

Travellers with better ways to spend their time than by comparing the merits of the Airbus A320 with the Boeing 737, and who neither know nor care whether they're aboard an Embraer or a Bombardier jet, may agree. But the second part of the statement may surprise you: "To me, they're all marginal costs with wings."

The man who said that was the economist-turned-aviation evangelist Alfred Kahn, who has just died at the grand age of 93.

What, you may wonder, does an American professor with a poor grasp of plane-spotting have to do with your travel plans? Well, "Fred" Kahn didn't just change the world – he revolutionised the way we travelled around it, by unlocking the chains of regulation that excluded ordinary people from flying. The fact that you can, if you wish, fly non-stop tomorrow from Bristol to Madrid or from Prestwick to Wroclaw for about £60 is directly due to Kahn's vision of a sky without frontiers.

In his 50th year, Fred Kahn was appointed chairman of the US Civil Aeronautics Bureau (CAB) – a quango, previously devoted to protecting high-cost, high-fare airlines from competition. The CAB pounced on price competition and stifled all attempts to start airlines.

"Prior to Fred Kahn, relaxing the barriers to competition in US air travel seemed a remote possibility," says Professor Thomas Hazlett of the George Mason University School of Law. "But circumstances were right in the 1970s, not least because a remarkable man was appointed chief airfare regulator."

Kahn instructed his staff to dismantle the crazy mechanism of restrictions and told them to clear out the arcane language of government while they were at it: "If you can't explain what you're doing in plain English, you're probably doing something wrong."

The following year, Kahn became possibly the first bureaucrat in history cheerfully to abolish his job along with his organisation. The Airline Deregulation Act 1978 that he propelled through Congress released airlines from comfortable captivity and forced them to fend for themselves in the market. The immediate beneficiary was Southwest Airlines, previously confined to shuttling around Texas. It has since become, by any measure you care to name, the most successful airline in history.

Howard Putnam, who was boss of Southwest at the time of deregulation, promptly wrote the mission statement: "To provide safe and comfortable air transportation in commuter and short-haul markets, from close-in airports, at prices competitive with automobiles and buses, and to involve customers and employees in the product and the process, making the airline a fun, profitable, and quality experience for all."

You may feel flying is no longer "fun" nor a "quality experience", but, crikey, it's cheap. To its credit, the UK was way ahead of the rest of Europe in emulating America and opening up the skies. That's why Europe's two leading low-cost airlines, Ryanair and easyJet, both have their main bases of operations in Britain. And both generously attribute their business models and success to Southwest – which learned to fly thanks to Fred Kahn.

BA: NY to LA?

Alfred Kahn lived longer than any airline: the world's longest surviving carrier, Qantas, is a sprightly 90 (KLM is a year older, but is now just a subsidiary of Air France). He saw many of the bloated "legacy" carriers, from Pan Am to Swissair, displaced by lower-cost, higher-value airlines such as Virgin Atlantic and easyJet. And according to the aviation law expert Thomas Hazlett, his influence will improve life for passengers in the future.

"Followers of Fred Kahn are still promoting full cross-country competition, allowing European air carriers to freely compete in US air routes and vice versa."

We could see BA fly from New York to Los Angeles, and jetBlue square up to Ryanair between London and Rome.

"I think the day will come. We may not find another Fred Kahn, but the path is now a bit easier because he showed us the way."