Home Opinion Why the great and good get to ride for free

Why the great and good get to ride for free

Richard White

Nineteenth-century plutocrats from the Northeast journeyed to Aiken, South Carolina, to take a break – much the way David Samson, former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did.

The Gilded Age robber barons traveled by rail, aboard private railroad cars, to reach Aiken and the surrounding countryside, which they had transformed into a winter haven for playing polo. Samson got to Aiken via a regularly scheduled – if lightly trafficked – United Airlines flight.

The railroad companies made sure the travels of the mighty were agreeable. United is being investigated for perhaps going a step further. In fact, the airline’s chief executive officer, Jeff Smisek, resigned last Tuesday in connection with an investigation by the United States attorney for New Jersey into whether the company maintained a money-losing flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Columbia, South Carolina, largely for the benefit of Samson, then head of the Port Authority, whose vacation home in Aiken was roughly 50 miles away.

United announced Smisek’s departure is “in connection with the company’s previously disclosed internal investigation related to the federal investigation.” United has refused any comment while both investigations are in progress. Smisek has not been available to comment. When Sampson was reached for comment, a spokeswoman said the Smisek resignation “is a United Airlines matter.” If the allegations prove true, it would not be the first time that people who run transportation companies have done favors for politicians. It’s an old American tradition.

The 19th-century, for example, was the heyday of special free railroad passes. A person could determine the beginning or adjournment of Congress or state legislatures by the volume of requests for passes sent to railway corporate headquarters.

Congressmen got passes. Judges, including Supreme Court justices, got passes. The vice president and president got passes. His cabinet officers got passes, too.

Eventually, the railroads imposed restrictions. As Henry Villard, a magnate who was then running the Kansas Pacific Railroad, put it: Passes were to go only to “parties that have been or can be useful to us.” Passes were only the quotidian exchange of favors between politicians and corporate managers. At the higher levels, the favors grew greater and the accommodations more grandiose.

When Thomas Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, wanted federal aid to his failing Texas and Pacific Railway, he provided his private cars to convey President-elect Rutherford B. Hayes to Washington for his inauguration. When Scott wanted militia sent to put down the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, he knew where to find the governor of Pennsylvania to ask for them: The governor and his family were vacationing – using Scott’s private car.

Like modern airlines, these railroads were “common carriers.” They operated by federal or state charter. Many obtained federal and state subsidies and used public facilities.

As common carriers, they were meant to serve the public. Serving the public somehow came to mean serving politicians. Eventually public disgust got the pass system and free transportation for public officials banned.

The public depends on the airlines now, the way it depended on railroads then. And many have to travel under conditions that involve more punishment than pleasure.

What makes this and similar scandals so resonant, both now and during the Gilded Age, is that they give economy customers a clear view of the special treatment regularly accorded the wealthy and privileged. Coach passengers could fully understand that their own treatment is what puts the “common” in common carriers.

Since both Samson and Smisek seem to play by different rules.