The Larry Summers view of airports

By Felix Salmon
September 29, 2010

It doesn’t matter whether you fly private or whether you fly commercial: you still have to fly from an airport. Which clearly annoys the Obama administration’s top plutocrat, Larry Summers. Justin Fox was in Washington on Tuesday to hear Summers give a speech on the inadequacies of US infrastructure. And he came up with a truly classic example to make his point:

“Compare the quality of our great resorts with the quality of the airports you take off from to visit those great resorts.”

It’s clearly not easy, being Larry Summers. For all his millions, he still needs to travel from A to B, and keeps on finding himself stymied. First of all he lost his Harvard town car and chauffeur when he moved to Washington, and stood out there for demanding a similar car and driver in recompense for not getting the job of Fed chairman.

And now, it seems, the poor chap has to navigate airports fit only for the masses, while making his way to luxury resorts designed to pamper the every whim of the gilded elite.

As an economist, Summers should know that it makes perfect sense for great resorts to spend enormous amounts of energy on the kind of quality he’s talking about: that’s their comparative advantage, the very heart of what they’re selling. Meanwhile, Summers isn’t really even the customer of the airports he’s passing through: the airlines are the customers, and the passengers are the goods being transported. So the airport doesn’t have much in the way of economic incentives to ease Summers’s way.

I’m sure that Summers has encountered lots of shiny new airports in his travels around the world, in comparison to which US airports look decidedly crumbly. But a lot of that is simply a function of age: it’s easy for Chinese airports to be super-modern and efficient, just because they’re brand new. (And have the advantage of very low construction costs.) It’s much harder for Delta’s Marine Air Terminal to be as Summers-friendly: it was built in 1939, long before anybody ever so much as imagined the TSA. (Indeed, it was before the planes which landed there even landed on solid ground: it was designed to service sea planes.) But because the terminal is one end of the Delta Shuttle from National Airport, I’m sure Summers knows it well.

More to the point, a lot of the money spent on shiny new airports around the world is simply wasted, from an economic perspective. National governments, especially in developing countries, like to show off when it comes to the airports where luminaries like Summers arrive. But all that expense isn’t really necessary for the smooth functioning of the airport.

Summers has been a vocal proponent of infrastructure investment, but if his idea of good infrastructure investment is cosmetic airport revamps which give him plusher lounges and colder drinks, then that’s just depressing. The really crucial infrastructure investment is in things like the national electricity grid, or NYC’s Water Tunnel 3 — expensive, yes, but decidedly unglamorous.

So let’s leave the provision of luxury to America’s great resorts, and maybe to the airlines trying to upsell Summers to a first-class seat. When it comes to infrastructure investments, there are much more important priorities.

9 comments

Comments are closed.