In the latest Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, I review UCLA law professor Stuart Banner’s book Who Owns the Sky? The Struggle to Control Airspace from the Wright Brothers On.
Banner’s book is outstanding because it presents the history of air law — particularly the struggle to determine who would have property rights in and sovereignty over airspace — in an engaging, accessible way.
My main disagreement with the book involves the author’s apparent assumption that all worked out for the best when the U.S. government finally asserted control over U.S. airspace with the Air Commerce Act of 1926. Sure, it was convenient for pilots and the airline industry to have one national set of laws related to licensing and registration of aircraft instead of a patchwork of state rules. But once the federal government took control of the air for that purpose, it didn’t stop there. Rather, it soon cartelized the airline industry — benefiting the industry’s big players while making air travel far costlier than it needed to be for the rest of us for about half a century. It’s not obvious to me that whatever benefits we reaped from federal control outweighed this enormous cost, which the book overlooks.
Still, it’s a great book and a perfect starting point for anyone interested in this area of the law.