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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Free as Air? Showdown at the Pumps

Traditional, consumer-friendly pump
 Photo by Andy Castro.
Who knew? The company that invented and grew flush from the pay toilet also brought us the first coin-operated air pumps at service stations in the late 1970s. By the mid-1970s, Indianapolis-based Nik-O-Lok was reeling from national angst over pay-toilets that had brought the business to its haunches. Scampering for a new market, the company debuted its coin-operated pump—4 minutes for a quarter (1 minute per tire)—in 1977 in Pittsburgh. Within a year, it added 500 more pay-as-you-go pumps in service stations (perhaps better described from then on as gas stations) in the Midwest and Northeast.

Consumer reactions ranged from amazement to fury. “It’s part of the traditional aspect of service stations to provide such necessary service as free air,” observed (former New York Republican senator) Alfonse D’Amato, who at the time (1978) was town supervisor of Hempstead, LI. The town promptly passed an ordinance banning monetized pumps. By and large, though, that was exceptional:  pay-as-you-pump continues in all but two states—Connecticut and California, which banned the practice in 2005 and 1999.
Philanthropy in the Air [click on photo to enlarge]
Back in the late 1970s, the advent of monetized air triggered a hefty endowment effect among consumers, i.e., disproportionate resistance to the prospect of losing a previously taken-for-granted “possession.” (Today you can see the endowment effect at work whenever “free” services on the internet become monetized.)
Compressed Air Is Not Free. Forty years down the road, resentment toward fee-for-air pumps is alive and well. Witness the thriving, consumer-active web site,, which identifies and advocates its namesake nationwide. An enduring ingredient in the air-must-be-free argument is air’s symbolic cachet as an iconic free commodity. But compressed air with its cost-based inputs of electricity and machine upkeep is decidedly not free! (although providing it at a profit versus at cost are two very different things).  Gas stations that choose to offer their compressed air for free will foot the bill through cross-subsidized fees for other goods and services or float free air as a cost of good will.

An Inflationary Red Herring. But don’t over-weight quarters-for-air as the disincentive in Americans’ well-documented neglect, i.e., under-inflation, of their tires--a penchant associated with garden variety flats, blowouts, and fuel inefficiencies. (A 2003 NY Times article reported that only 11% of drivers check their tires monthly as recommended.)  In truth, price itself is often an over-rated factor in a constellation of disincentives, including consumer-unfriendly pumps with hard-to-decipher pressure gauges and stressful timers. And for many a driver, getting down at tire level can be orthopedically and sartorially daunting.  

So we’d do well to have a serious policy conversation about making tire inflation more consumer friendly--a conversation that considers better air-pump design, driver education, and, of course, economic incentives for motorists and service stations. But to begin, we need to exorcise the red herring that compressed air must be--excuse the expression--free as air.
The Unanswered Question

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