The neon sign shining in the dawn of a winter morning awakens nostalgic feelings. “2.05” stands there in big numbers. It brings a mild smile to the faces of numerous car drivers, who take a glance at the display of the gas station while at the traffic light on their way to work. Two dollars and five cents for a gallon of regular gas – when did that last happen? The sober answer of the statisticians would be: in 2002. That’s a very long time ago. In the meantime, most commuters have gotten so used to gallon prices with a 3 or even a 4 before the decimal point that they would regard the era of affordable fuel as much further in the past. It must have been when one wore bold blow-dry hairstyles and shoulder pads. Of course, the radio, tuned to Oldies 100.3, strongly jars the imagination at this moment, refreshing the fatigued workers with “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! Such a blessing as affordable gas must simply be attributed to an era when things were finally recovering again in America, when the sonorous voice of the president with his unmistakable Hollywood voice announced that it was “morning in America,” and the best days of the nation lay ahead.
Hardly any other number from American economic life can influence the sense of well-being so strongly – or in the case it is too high, spoil it – as the price of gas, which has an impact on the working population. Being without a car just doesn't work in this country; even in the capital of Washington, D.C. – atypical because of a (mostly) well-functioning metro system, with subway lines traversing the surrounding region – the morning caravan of commuters appears to extend too far beyond the horizon. Therefore, there's no doubt about it: This is a variable that has an impact. Indeed, an upswing in mood is palpable these days that at best will suffer a temporary dampening only for fans of the losers in the Super Bowl. Optimism widely prevails like in the days of Ronald Reagan, who understood how to spread it even before the numbers justified it. If the prices hold at the present level, America’s households will save an estimated $75 billion. That is money that can be put into other areas of the economy.
Like every other economic development, this has a bright side and a downside. On a political level, the good economic mood may have contributed to the upswing in President Obama’s approval rating, now once again at around 50 percent. The decline in the price of oil is disadvantageous for some of those states that are the strongholds of his political opponents. North Dakota, for example, staunchly Republican at the election polls, has experienced a boom reminiscent of the Gold Rush days in California and Alaska thanks to the development of new oil deposits. Possibly the appeal of fracking away deeper and deeper layers under the prairie will now subside a little. As far as Alaska is concerned, this state has also made itself dependent upon oil and gas: Half of its budget comes from the bubbling wells. One is not rejoicing there – like us in Washington, New Yorkers or Chicagoans – over numbers like $2.05.
Now here, as everywhere else in the country, it is easy to flee to a realm where there is no trace of the low price of oil, where one doesn’t feel reminded of 1983, or 1986 or 2002, but instead, of the past year. This refuge from the relief and joy over saved fuel costs is at the airports of the country. Probably, I represent a minority opinion when I admit that I exceptionally like flying in the U.S. – I have always found the employees of the airlines, as well as the airport security personnel to be polite and efficient; most flights were and are (fairly) punctual; the camaraderie with the other passengers in the fully occupied cabins of the sardine-can class are faintly reminiscent of the pioneer days of the railway in the 1860s; and above all, one reliably covers the long distances in this country quickly. However, the prices! The same reductions at the gas station have practically bypassed the airlines, and to the frustration of many travelers, they do not show even the slightest trend downward. I eliminated the thought of attending a medical conference in warm Miami in the face of more than $800 for a direct flight — to which of course another $25 per piece of checked luggage is added. With a transfer – and a few hours somewhere in North Carolina – one could keep the price to just under $500.
According to airline spokespersons, the immunity of flight fares is due to long-term delivery contracts. Some hear that with a degree of disbelief like Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who demands an investigation of why air traffic of all things is “defying economic gravity.” Perhaps it has to do with the consolidation process and the positive economic development of the airlines. The mergers have given the big four a controlling position. Flights are essentially booked solid; destinations for which this is not possible on an ongoing basis are dropped from the schedule. The sector, whose members were operating on the brink of bankruptcy for years is bringing in profits again. So, it is to be anticipated that departure halls will continue to be zones where one will be able to recover from the euphoria over the recently pleasant experience of tanking up.
And all the same, there are still offers that undercut the costs of travel by car, even with low gas prices. Recently, I flew to Boston. A flight to the beautiful city steeped in history cost only $132. Perhaps it will remain thus, or so one might hope with the present optimism typical of the country, even in a season when your hand is frozen fast to the handle of your suitcase within less than two minutes of leaving the airport building.