Economics

The Right Protection for Airline Passengers

Why an airline passengers' bill of rights is a bad idea

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Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in February 2007.

On Valentine's Day in 2007, a major storm in Pennsylvania tied up traffic along 50 miles of Interstate 78 and adjoining highways. Many travelers were stranded for as long as two days. One driver needed 12 hours to go 100 miles. So I've got an idea: Enact a federal bill of rights for highway motorists, guaranteeing that they will never again be stuck in a weather-related traffic jam for more than three hours.

Does that sound crazy? No crazier than an idea that is being taken seriously in Washington: an airline passengers' bill of rights, which would require planes to return to the gate after three hours. This proposal comes in the aftermath of an appalling episode in which travelers on nine JetBlue flights were stuck on the tarmac at New York's Kennedy airport for more than six hours during a horrendous ice storm.

Right now, air travelers have only the same Bill of Rights as everyone else—the one assuring freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right against self-incrimination, and so on. Not mentioned in that document, however, is another inalienable right, namely the freedom to spurn any airline they find unsatisfactory and choose one that will serve them better.

The prerogative of taking their business elsewhere is the best protection consumers have in air travel or any other sector. Not only are politicians unlikely to do a better job managing commercial aviation than the airlines are doing, but their intervention is bound to make things worse for both carriers and their customers.

Incidents like the one at JFK make headlines because they are not only appalling but rare. From 2000 through 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, some 330 aircraft were held on the tarmac for more than five hours awaiting takeoff. But as the Business Travel Coalition points out, there were 88 million flights during that time. On average, you can fly more than 260,000 times before your luck will run out.

Everyone who flies has gripes about air travel, but there are not many businesses in which customers pay for less than they get. That is not a figure of speech but a financial fact: American carriers have lost money four of the last five years. Over the past two decades, fares have dropped by half after accounting for inflation. That didn't happen because of government mandates but because of relentless, brutal competition for customers.

Many travelers, of course, dream of onboard meals, more legroom, and fewer delays. But if those were truly a priority, plenty of companies would raise fares to pay for them. The immovable fact about people who fly, though, is that most will choose the cheapest flight. But saddling carriers with rigid federal rules will mean higher costs and higher fares.

In any market, some basic elements may get neglected once in a while. JetBlue failed to devote sufficient resources to dealing with crises, and the consequences were dismal. But it learned an unforgettable lesson.

The carrier will pay the price in two ways. The first is in compensation paid to customers, since anyone stranded for three hours or more will get a full refund and a free round-trip ticket to anywhere the airline flies. The second is in lost good will. After years of getting reviews that Meryl Streep would envy, JetBlue may find that some travelers would rather hitchhike than take another chance of being held captive. That's why the airline doesn't need a government mandate: It's establishing its own bill of rights for customers.

The penalties of the marketplace serve as a keen incentive for air carriers to prevent long delays. But in a world of full planes, congested airports, and bad weather, there is no way to guarantee travelers will never have to endure such inconveniences.

A federal law can't banish the events that create snafus. For the government to impose a three-hour limit will have one simple effect: more canceled flights. Being stranded on the tarmac for four hours is bad. Spending two days sitting on a suitcase in the departure area may be worse.

In the end, we're better off leaving decisions about airline operations to the people who have the most expertise, who know the specifics of each particular situation, and who ultimately have to answer to their customers. If there is a better way to avoid major tie-ups, they'll figure it out sooner than Congress will. Politicians can prosper offering empty solutions. Capitalists, as JetBlue can attest, are not so lucky.

COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM

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  1. The only flaw I find in the comparison of the tarmac delay to a snowstorm/highway delay is that if I am in my *own* car, on a highway, trapped in a 3-hour delay, I have controlled what I have in the car with me — I decide what is accessible to me, and, in theory, traffic being at a dead stop, I have the freedom to get out of my car, and free additional items of my choice from the trunk, or simply stretch my legs as I see fit.

    I am not stuck with a single item of carry-on luggage, the inability to access any further belongings, a long list of prohibited items that are *completely* out of the question, and so on.

    I think, in short, that this particular reductio ad absurdum … really is. I think it does the market-based argument no real favors.

    Also, GOOD MORNING, REASON! (though I’m sure someone’s already snuck that in while I was writing the rest of this)

    1. Don’t forget being able to pee!

  2. I don’t agree with every “right” being proposed, but at some point between getting on the plane and 6 hours on the runway, you cease to be a customer and begin to be a captive.

    If nothing else, I think there should be some interval (i.e. every hour after 2-3 hours) when you can elect to just get off the plane (in place) and be taken back to the gate.

    1. I think the problem they have with that is if one person gets off, everyone has to get off for security reasons. This is something that i recall hearing from when this argument was brought up before. If there is someone who knows about this kind of thing what are your thoughts?

      1. I think the problem they have with that is if one person gets off, everyone has to get off for security reasons.

        That wouldn’t be a government regulation, would it?

        Would that airline passengers had the right to seek compensation from the net worth of all the legislators who vote for these “bills of ‘rights'”.

        1. So your worried that terrorists will get a bomb onto a plane, and then ensure that it gets delayed 3 hours?

          If that keeps you up at night then just don’t fly, OK?

          1. +1

          2. I never said i agreed with it.

        2. Right, I completely agree with you, all I’m saying is that’s what I’ve heard, and no terrorist bomb delays don’t keep me up.

      2. The problem is not that everyone has to get off, the problem is the deplaning passenger’s checked baggage has to get off, too.

  3. Years ago when i was flying from N.C. to my first duty station in Hawaii the airline company gave me a free upgrade. They had a few open seats up in first class (or whatever they call that) so the ladys came back and asked us to move up there. At first we had no idea what they were doing and it turns out they new that we were military so they upgraded us for free (damn sure uncle sam didnt pay for that). We got free drinks the entire flight although there were only three of us and we were so nervous about going to our first duty station that we just drank water and soda.

    I just thought i would share that little story with those who instantly associate big business with pure evil.

    1. Check out the big brains on Brad. No one here is instantly associating business of any kind with pure evil. Go back to Kos with your paranoia.

      1. Um, what? I never said that anyone here was. Are you suggesting that there are not people who think that way?

  4. You act as if I have a real “choice” of airline, as if

    1: The corporation who uses my local airport as a hub doesn’t control the vast majority of flights out of the airport, and almost any flight by a “competitor” would involve flying to THEIR hub first, adding a leg

    2: As if there are multiple flights that fit my basic criteria such as “leaves Thursday AM, returns as late as possible on Tuesday”, or whatever.

    3: That there is accurate, unbiased information about WHICH airline is shittier than the others. If they are all shitty, how am I supposed to chose? And aren’t half of the problems caused by the airports, not the airlines? Which horror stories are the responsibility of which?

    1. Take a car

      1. Take a catapult.

        1. Start your own airline, Chad.

          Oooh, but then you’d be a corporate exec, which = Satan. Scratch that idea.

      2. I can’t take a car. I’m trapped on an airplane that is sitting on a runway. The airline has failed to provide the service I paid for, but I am physically prevented from utilizing other possible options by the airline.

  5. This bill of “rights” is simply more regulation disguised as a warm puppy. It’s a promise and a threat from your government that Americans should not and will not be inconvenienced by weather and other nuisances of reality.

    1. Um… I think I know why this puppy is so warm. Anybody got a towel?

      1. There are those who will say that our puppy is pissing on you [laughter]. Just the other day, Tamika and Shanita were playing with our dog, Whitey [laughter] and, well, it seems that Whitey might have had a little too much to drink [laughter and applause].

  6. Everyone who flies has gripes about air travel, but there are not many businesses in which customers pay for less than they get. That is not a figure of speech but a financial fact: American carriers have lost money four of the last five years. Over the past two decades, fares have dropped by half after accounting for inflation. That didn’t happen because of government mandates but because of relentless, brutal competition for customers.

    And I fail to see how the dinosaurs still roam the skies other than lack of choice due to their ownership of gates. Southwest continues to make money year after year and dominates most areas it flies between.

  7. Flight crews have essentially been granted police powers, but without any additional related training. Maybe we do need some additional rights spelled out.

    1. It’s a carryover from seafaring days, when the captain and crew had absolute power over the passengers. We have merely replaced oceans with airspace. And added the terrorism threat for good measure.

  8. Over the past two decades, fares have dropped by half after accounting for inflation. That didn’t happen because of government mandates but because of relentless, brutal competition for customers.

    Comparing the cost of tickets today to two decades ago is an apples and oranges comparison. You account for inflation, but you don’t account for reduced service. If you add in the cost of 2 bags and a meal, which were free two decades ago the difference is less stark. It’s probably still cheaper to fly today, but by a much smaller margin.

  9. Seems like the TSA is a much larger violator of actual rights than airlines are. Oh wait, that’s the government. They can’t do anything wrong.

  10. I think the problem they have with that is if one person gets off, everyone has to get off for security reasons.

    Why? If I get off the plane but no one else does, how is security compromised?

    Of course, if I change flights, then my luggage is still on my former plane. To get it off requires emptying the luggage compartment, so I would bet that’s why they require everyone to keep their flight until its cancelled.

    1. The other reason, I would imagine, is that you aren’t allowed to wander around the airport tarmac unescorted.

    2. Yeah that would make sense.

    3. Has no one seen Final Destination? I’m pretty sure that was based on a true story. Devon Sawa got off a plane, and then the plane blew up. Gee, I wonder how he knew THAT was gonna happen?

      TERRORIST!!!

  11. Politicians can prosper offering empty solutions. Capitalists, as JetBlue can attest, are not so lucky.

    Because Capitalists never, ever, get assistance from the government. Never!

    1. Because Capitalists never, ever, get assistance from the government.

      By definition, once they get government assistance they are no longer “capitalists”.

      1. In that case there is no such thing as a “capitalist”.

  12. They passed a “passenger bill of rights” since the article came out; it goes into effect on April 29. It’s the one where everyone predicts that airlines will start cancelling flights altogether rather than risk the fine.

  13. The bill does NOT require planes to return to the terminal…it simply requires them to allow passengers to return to the terminal. Virtually all airports have busses that can be used to take passengers from remote aircraft, and return them to the terminal.

    False imprisonment is a crime. Holding passengers against their will when safe, inexpensive, easy alternatives for returning them to the terminal, are available should be punished.

    1. +1

  14. Since the Federal Govt controls every aspect of air travel from the moment you step out of the car and onto the parking lot. Market based arguments no longer apply. The Byzantine rules and regulations of the FAA, DHS, and TSA has made competition between airlines over customer satisfaction almost impossible.

    The people who run the airlines, airports, and various govt. departments have no interesting in providing for the passengers. They are only concerned with security theater and preventing embarrassment to their department.

    Given this situation, having a bill of rights for air travel is essential.

  15. Being stranded on the tarmac for four hours is bad. Spending two days sitting on a suitcase in the departure area may be worse.

    No… it’s not. I’m not limited to the departure area; I can go to a hotel or attempt to take a bus/car/mule/canoe.

    As with all inconvenient situations, you have to find the incentive for this behavior. That incentive lies in that departing slots at nearly all airports are first come, first serve, and reward staying in line. Allowing a flight delayed due to weather to move to the front of the takeoff line would help correct this problem.

  16. Air Travel Bill of Rights.
    Credit Card Bill of Rights.
    They make a mockery of the ACTUAL bill of rights they swore to uphold, and then walk all over it.

    1. That is our plan.

  17. This is an amusing article that makes little sense when you consider that the FAA and its regulations cause many of the problems that people are seeking to remedy.

    People have been stuck on the tarmac because the pilot can’t hit the gate because if he does, he can’t fly any more that because. The pilot would be over the alloted hours for that day.

    You can fix the stupid rules that cause the delays, or you can give passengers rights to compensate for the stupid rules. At this point, I don’t care.

  18. It’s too bad Steve wrote this article when Bush was still president and our faith in big government was at an all time low. Little did he know what Obama would come along with his impeccable ability to preserve what is good about the free-market, while rooting out what is bad (without impacting the former). If Obama revisits this problem, he will manage the perfect balance of righting the wrongs of the airline industry, while improving service and lowering costs.

  19. Dunno what planet Steve inhabits, but for most U.S. airline travelers, For For most air travelers, there’s often precious little “choice” of flight options on most routes (unless one wants to endure a three-leg journey. It isn’t analogous to a stranded motorist, who has endless alternative options to I78 at his or her disposal. He’s elevating free market dogma above plain reality.

  20. There is no guarantee of right protection just probabilities.
    It is true that airline is not only to travel. So, we can think some alternative. Only the problem there is no time saver like this.

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