The Right Protection for Airline Passengers

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


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.