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PRIVATE WELCOME, PUBLIC STICKUP



Published: Wed, May 2, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Los Angeles Times: Two Los Angeles Times stories last month sharply illustrate the opposite reactions of a private company and some public airport agencies to the changing tastes and needs of the traveling public. Maybe the public agencies, which are, after all, financed by the travelers themselves, could learn a valuable lesson that would save us all money and time.

Reporter Julie Cart described how thousands of recreational vehicle owners, many on fixed incomes and tight budgets, are finding public campgrounds congested, too pricey or scarce. The result: These tourists camp overnight in distant corners of vast Wal-Mart parking lots, built large to handle anticipated future shoppers.

Now, how does Wal-Mart handle these uninvited crowds? It sends store greeters out to welcome them and announce that fresh coffee is brewing inside, where camping and travel supplies also await at discount prices (along with maps marked with the locations of other Wal-Mart stores).

Airport congestion: On the adjacent page, Times reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar wrote that many large public U.S. airports have become extremely congested at peak travel hours. Anyone rereading the newspaper with 200 new friends while parked in a large plane on a taxiway knows this. Last week Congress heard predictions that airport congestion could worsen this summer. The news is how some public airport agencies, built and operated with tax money from the folks who use them, propose to handle these annoying throngs of travelers: charge the airliners and ultimately the passengers a whole lot more money if they are present during busy hours. Officials of Los Angeles International Airport deny considering this plan. But Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta actually likes the idea.

In the world of public agencies, charging more at peak times can seem sensible because on paper it boosts revenue even while shooing away some customers -- one true sign of the arrogance of monopoly. If there's one McDonald's in town, it might jack up prices -- until Wendy's and Burger King arrive. Restaurants don't charge more when they get busy. To do so would be a route to oblivion, a rejection of a competitive reality.

Public airports generally lack competition, but someone should at least remind these public monopolies that we're not flying to keep airport managers employed. It's the other way around.

Airport congestion is a serious problem. If local and federal airport authorities don't come up with more serious-minded solutions than hiking rates during busy times, some folks might wonder why we don't just land some planes in those Wal-Mart parking lots. They're big enough. And Wal-Mart has a better attitude -- and better coffee.

JAPAN AT A CROSSROADS?

Providence Journal: Japan's rather hapless prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, has now been replaced by insurgent Junichiro Koizumi, 59. Mr. Mori, an ineffectual and unpopular leader, agreed to step aside without a drawn-out fight. His successor is expected to do better; in any event, it would be difficult for him to do much worse.

Let there be no mistake: Japan is not an object of pity. The people are talented, hard-working and generally affluent. Their schools, and the students and teachers in them, are highly regarded. Their technology is superb.

Most elements of the social system -- health care, marriage, crime, public decorum, etc. -- are at least as healthy as elsewhere in the industrialized world, and in many cases better than in the United States.

Yet there is little doubt that Japan can use new leadership and policy direction. Its economy as a whole has been dragging along for years. Its banking system is a mess, loaded down with many bad loans, many of them tied to real estate deals. The budget deficit is huge. Some sectors of the economy are hampered by overly traditionalist and protectionist practices.

Many aspects of the retail system are unnecessarily, and unwisely, constrained by archaic and inefficient attitudes. All this and more is held together -- or more accurately, held back -- by an increasingly sclerotic web of business magnates, political bosses and government bureaucrats.

Reformer: That's where Mr. Koizumi comes in. He is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for most of the postwar era. But he has developed the reputation of being reform-minded, not beholden to any of the machine-type factions that have perennially dominated the party's inner workings.

But Mr. Koizumi is not a superman who will quickly set everything aright. Japan is basically conservative: While innovative designs are not necessarily rejected out of hand, decisions on such matters usually tend to be made only after consultation among most of those likely to be affected; and while cutting-edge advances, especially in technology, may be enthusiastically accepted, the pull of custom is very strong as well.

In short, Japan, like most nations, has both strengths and weaknesses; Mr. Koizumi will have to show a deftness in handling both.

As for us Americans, Japan is a key economic partner and an important strategic ally. This gives us a keen interest in how Mr. Koizumi fares.




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