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Flight or Fight: The Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights

By Timothy M. Ravich
May 28, 2001

Legislating gridlock -- Why new laws will not improve U.S. airline service

In January 1999, Marti Sousanis, like thousands of post-holiday travelers, arrived at a crowded airport ready to go home. After waiting several hours in multiple lines at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, she boarded Northwest Airlines flight 992 to San Francisco. An announcement reported the flight was "on time." Instead, the airplane sat on the tarmac. It sat. It waited. One hour passed. The plane remained still. Another hour passed. A devastating blizzard covered the Detroit airport with over a foot of snow and stranded Sousanis's flight and more than two dozen other airplanes for up to eleven hours. Conditions on the planes became nightmarish as the hours passed. Food and water ran out and toilets overflowed. Passengers "became physically ill, . . . [and] were being exposed to the growing odor of [a] concentrated number of humans in an enclosed space . . ." The crew of flight 992 was uncaring. Each time Sousanis tried to stand to relieve her chronically pained back, she was threatened with arrest and told to obey an unrelenting "fasten seatbelt" sign. Horror stories such as this are the anecdotal flagship of a legislative fleet of passengers' rights legislation now being considered by the United States Congress. After discussing the motivation and contours of the now-pending legislation, this article briefly examines its practical applications, critiques the notion that airline service can be maximized through the generation of new law, and offers suggestions passengers might use to cope with the inconveniences of modern air travel.


MOTIVATING FACTORS


The considered legislation is the product of the often conflicting ways airlines, passengers and the government have contributed to and/or dealt with an extraordinary increase in domestic airline traffic. Air transportation within the United States serves almost 660 million passengers annually. This figure represents a three-fold increase in passenger volume since airlines were freed of certain government regulation pursuant to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Moreover, the Department of Transportation ("DOT") estimates that 1 billion people will utilize the commercial air system by 2010. The passengers' rights movement, whatever its utility or final form, represents a pivotal point in the present and future relationship among carriers, customers and would-be regulators.

Passenger Culture: Hurry-Up-And-Wait

Communication is at the heart of the passengers' rights movement. Most often, passengers complain that the airlines either provide no information or false information about delays, diversions and cancellations. For instance, the term "creeping delay" has evolved to describe a process during which airlines provide piecemeal information about departure time. In some instances, departure delays without adequate information extend beyond 24 hours. The head of the Aviation Consumer Advocacy Project once characterized this announcement style as the "gold-plating on the string-along policy." Airline conduct, therefore, has aggravated a passenger culture which believes the airlines do not care about them. One commentator assessed the airline industry's attitude as follows:

    If you want to get somewhere relatively fast – with the emphasis on 'relatively' – you have no choice but to fly. And since prices and services vary little from one carrier to another – and there are plenty of passengers to go around – there is no incentive to cater to your comfort.

As a result of this thinking, a consumer backlash has developed in the form of increased complaints to airlines and the DOT. Several passenger-created Internet sites also illustrate outrage: Passengerrights.com, AirSafe.com, TravelProblems.com and Untied.com. Acutely aware of this sentiment, Congress means to legislate communication between airlines and their passengers by prescribing the timing, method and substance of flight announcements. As Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) noted, while weather accounts for more than two-thirds of flight delays nationally, it "does not cause mishandled baggage, and congestion does not prohibit giving timely information on delays." (Earlier this year, Senator McCain's flight from Phoenix to Chicago was delayed three hours. )

The Government's Attack: The "Fortress Hub" and Airline Scheduling

In promoting several different bills collectively referred to as the "Passengers' Bill of Rights," Congress tells a statistical tale. One in four flights are delayed, cancelled or diverted and the average delay exceeds 52 minutes. From the government's point of view, these figures are a consequence of airline schedules developed around a hub-and-spoke route structure. As its name implies, this structure resembles a bicycle wheel – multiple spokes meeting at a central (hub) point. The hub-and-spoke system is an economically and theoretically efficient model for managing an enormous flow of passengers across national networks. It allows airlines to approximate the capacity of their planes by feeding their hub departures with arriving and connecting spoke passengers. However, the system is structurally interdependent and therefore oversensitive to delays, diversions or cancellations at other hubs and/or spokes. Gridlock often results because over 70 percent of domestic commercial airline traffic is concentrated at the nations' 28 largest facilities or hubs. A scheduling glitch at any one creates and compounds similar difficulties at others. Advocates of the proposed legislation contend that these unfavorable statistics result because the airlines fail to appreciate the physical limitations of their respective hubs, specifically, and the "modern" national airport infrastructure (i.e., runways, radar, etc.), generally.

Congress contends that the airlines are saturating an inadequate infrastructure. For instance, a March 13, 2001 MSNBC broadcast entitled, "The Plane Truth: Are Airlines Delivering on Their Promises of Good Service?", pointed out that at Chicago's O'Hare airport, 62 departures often are scheduled in a 15-minute span during which controllers can permit only half as many in perfect weather. In a press release, the American Air Traffic Controllers, all of whom work for the government, echo the point:

    Two and two still equal four.

    Add 600 flights a day to an already congested air traffic control system and delays ensue. Schedule 57 flight operations in a 10-minute span, when only 35 aircraft may takeoff and land under ideal conditions. The result, delay.

    Who makes these decisions? Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor air traffic controllers, not Congress, not airports. The airlines do.

In this sense, the U.S. government and its employees, in conjunction with commercial passengers, assign blame for the miserable state of commercial airline traffic to the airlines.


THE 2001 LEGISLATION


Empirically, the current Congress has made commercial airline regulation a priority. In the first three months of the 2001 Congressional session, Congress proposed nine bills related to airline service. By comparison, Congress proposed only four bills concerning regulation of managed-care health organizations, a dominant issue of the previous year's federal elections. The titles of a sampling of the proposed bills identify salient themes and express the antagonism among passengers, government and airlines. Some of the titles are, for example: Airline Passenger Fair Treatment Act of 2001; Airline Customer Service Improvement Act; Airline Competition and Passenger Rights Act of 2001; Aviation Competition Restoration Act; Consumer-Friendly Airline Ticket Transfer Act; the Airport Congestion Relief Act of 2001; and the Airline Merger Moratorium Act. Collectively, the proposals would hold the airlines legally accountable for poor service and supervise the landscape of the (deregulated) airline market.

The majority of the proposed bills focus primarily on increasing passenger access to flight information and allowing flexible ticket use. First, multiple proposals demand truth-in-scheduling and would require airlines to provide notice to passengers of delays, diversions, cancellations and overbooking. The proposals also seek to ensure passenger access to all available fares regardless of the medium in which such fares are offered (e.g., the Internet). In addition, the proposals would legally guarantee a smart, but currently prohibited, consumer practice of purchasing "hidden city tickets." For example, a ticket departing from point A through B and finally to C often is less expensive than a ticket from A to B. As such, savvy passengers will purchase a ticket from A to C, but deplane at B. Last, and broader, the proposed legislation aims to have each airline incorporate the terms of the collective passengers' rights legislation into their respective contracts of carriage, i.e., the fine print on each ticket jacket. This incorporation would legally and contractually bind each airline to their passengers.

Equally important, the proposed legislation seeks to protect passengers by regulating the business environment encountered by new airlines and preserving market competition. The proposals would establish regulatory reactions to industry consolidation such as American Airlines' recent purchase of its competitor, history-rich TWA. The deal, which was finalized on April 9, 2001, makes American Airlines the largest passenger carrier in the world; this status may be short-lived as United Airlines, now the second largest American airline, awaits government approval of its takeover of US Airways. One proposal, the Airline Competition Preservation Act of 2001, focuses on this remarkable trend toward consolidation. If passed, it becomes effective when and if three or fewer airlines control 70 percent or more of domestic travel in the United States. In the event such market concentration is achieved, this Act authorizes the Secretary of the DOT to investigate whether any of these carriers "is charging a fare or an average fare . . . that is unreasonably high." If such a determination is made, the DOT Secretary is further empowered to order the offending airline(s) to (1) reduce the fare, (2) offer the reduced fare for a specific number of seats on the route, and (3) offer rebates to individuals who have been charged the "unreasonably high" fare.


ANALYSIS


The proposed legislation is inadequate in three respects. First, it is significant in that it fails to address declining passenger civility, which is both a symptom of and contributor to the current state of airline travel. Next, the proposals question the efficacy of the deregulated U.S. airline industry and suggest government regulation will resolve service problems better than market forces. Finally, the passengers' rights movement seeks to produce new laws instead of educating the flying public about helpful existing ones.

As a practical matter, the proposed legislation does not account for increasingly terrible passenger behavior. The deregulated airline market has fostered a mass transportation culture in which flight crews, as well as passengers themselves, are confronted with, among others: "the incessant talker, the wrong-seat grabber, the baby in (or out) of diapers, the drunk, the common cold carrier, the terrified flier, the passenger in the window seat with the bladder problem, the carry-on abuser, the kid from the seat in front staring right into your eyeballs, and the flight attendant pest." This is in addition to shocking and extreme examples of "air rage" epitomized by an intoxicated passenger defecating on a service cart used by a flight crew. Clothed in the historically significant title "Bill of Rights," the rhetorical implications of the proposed legislation are misleading and bound to exacerbate an already hostile passenger culture. Aggrieved passengers eagerly might try to exercise imagined, newly created rights only to be further disappointed. The precise but limited effect of the passengers' rights bills is to proscribe and penalize airlines for poor service rather than to remedy the infrastructure inadequacies which contribute to such problems.

In policy terms, the proposed legislation marks an important point in the history of American deregulation. Representative John D. Dingell (D-MI) made the case in a prepared statement to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on March 18, 1999, in which he stated: ". . . the industry has had better than two decades without regulation . . . passengers deserve basic courtesy, respect, dignity, and truthfulness. The marketplace has not been able to resolve these issues." Passengers' Bill of Rights proponents would do well to adhere to the principle underlying deregulation that the government that governs least, governs best. The provision of qualitatively sound airline service is a function of marketplace forces and competition, not legislative mandate. As one industry player noted: "[y]ou just can't lay down a legislative fiat that says start flying on time . . . That ain't gonna work." The issue presented by the passengers' rights legislation for debate, therefore, is not whether airline service should improve (which it admittedly must), but how it should improve.

The airlines have responded to the possible enactment of the passengers' rights proposals. While determinedly resisting passage of the legislation, the airlines have taken carefully crafted public actions intended to demonstrate that the proposals are unnecessary. On June 17, 1999, the airlines, through their trade association, the Air Transport Association ("ATA"), agreed to enter into an "Airline Customer Service Commitment" as discussed on the ATA website, www.customers-first.org. Each airline developed a "Customer First" plan containing 12 points including offering the lowest fare available and notifying customers of delays, cancellations and diversions. By May 1, 2001, all the ATA-airlines will include the customer commitment in their respective contracts of carriage. In addition, the airlines have increased their liability for lost baggage from US $1,250 to US $2,500. Individual carriers also have created notification systems capable of contacting passengers by phone, computer or pager to advise of flight changes. To deal with delays, several major airlines have restructured operations at their hubs. Also, many airlines have removed seats from their airplanes in order to expand passenger legroom. These encouraging examples represent business responses to market forces and demonstrate that the passengers' rights proposals, in the form of market pressure rather than law, have incentivized airlines.

Educating passengers about existing rights is a better approach to improving airline service than creating new ones. While Congress considers the various proposals, passengers can and should try to enforce these rights. For example, Rule 240, a vestige of older regulations, requires an airline to provide alternative travel or arrange for transportation on another airline at no additional cost if it cancels, delays or causes a missed connection. Under Rule 240, airlines also may be obligated to provide refunds (even when the passenger has a nonrefundable ticket) and/or hotel accommodations. If (and likely when) an applicable situation presents itself, passengers should not hesitate to exercise this rule. Copies of each airline's respective adoption of Rule 240 are accessible at www.mytravelrights.com. The fact that this and other cooperative and long-standing rules have not soothed current passenger and government dissatisfaction forecasts the likely ineffectiveness of any new legal imperatives and emphasizes real defects in the air traffic infrastructure.


CONCLUSION


In all, the government's attempt to legislate the business of airline service through law is misguided, albeit well intentioned. The domestic air traffic system will not be improved through law intending to establish airline business practices. Alternatively, airline initiative complemented with capital improvements such as runway construction and airport expansion will fulfill the deregulation promise of an efficient and competitive air transportation system. The proposed laws cannot loosen congestion or prevent situations like that encountered by Marti Sousanis. Instead, they create rights, and in many regards, duplicate already existing law, which do not enhance the commodity airline passengers purchase: travel. When passengers purchase tickets for air travel they do not imagine their final destination as a court of law. Passengers merely want to get to wherever it is they are going. Laws intending to help passengers after the fact obviously do nothing to prevent such fact from happening in the first place. Airlines, meanwhile, have every business, as opposed to legal, incentive to serve their customer. Customers, too, should be wary of further airline regulation which might lead, in turn, to higher costs. The proposals may allow passengers to fight, but they assuredly do not better commercial flight.

Written by
Timothy M. Ravich

Timothy M. Ravich is a trial lawyer with the law firm of Hunton & Williams LLP (WWW.Hunton.Com). Mr. Ravich practices in Miami, Florida and concentrates in general and complex commercial litigation including products liability, health law, aviation and other matters.

7 User Comments:
Username: DCA-ROCguy [User Info]
Posted 2001-05-28 21:56:43 and read 32768 times.

Ravich's article misses the main point of passenger rights legislation, however helpful or harmful it may be to the cause of improving airline service. His concluding assertion that "Airlines have very business, as well as legal, incentive, to serve thier customers," is simply innacurate.

It's somewhat deceptive to speak of "airlines" in the generic, because the USA industry does not, in most markets, function as a true free market. The industry consists of two major components: 1) six major airlines with similar, high costs and bitter labor relations fixed largely before deregulation, and their regional affiliates; and 2) low-fare and specialty-service carriers which generally have lower costs and a strong commitment to customer service, things which are their economic raison d'etre. In markets served by these airlines, a true free market is at work to drive down fares and improve customer service. As my mother put it so well recently after flying JetBlue, "It was so different than United (the airline she usually flies) because everyone was so nice, and helpful...it was entirely different."

The Big Six airlines, or Six Families as I often call them at the airliners.net forum, simply do not compete in any meaningful fashion. After the industry destroyed low-fare competition in the 1980's and consolidated, it chose to function as an oligopoly committed to maximizing profit margins or "yields." This arrangement by nature militates against a commitment to customer service, because there is no incentive to improve. All six airlines have poor customer service, and no reason to improve in the markets or routes where a high-quality carrier like Southwest or JetBlue is not there to offer meaningful competition. The Big Six are a cartel dedicated to their own mutual protection, in the end.

Why are passengers so much less tolerant of poor airline service in 2000-2001, after tolerating it with little complaint to legislators for most of the 1990's? I'd venture that a main reason is that enough US communities, or their neighbors within a two-hour drive, have one of these low-fare, quality-service carriers, that they know that they have an option. And they are angry that that option is not at their own home airport.

One only needs to look at customer-service and airfare-justice champion Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Rochester, NY. Slaughter is a key scourge of the Six Families, and her fierce efforts to help fare-gouged and service-abused Rochester are an excellent example of the fact that people aren't going to simply take it anymore. Her constituents got screwed by the late 1980's consolidation, both in terms of service and fares, and they aren't accepting driving to Buffalo for Southwest as a "final answer." That's a good short-term solution. But airline service must improve nationwide, at airports that aren't among the Blessed Southwest 58, in order for the constituents of representatives like Slaughter to stop demanding passenger rights legislation.

Ravich is correct that most such legislation will probably not help improve service. But the Six Families must realize that too many US consumers now have a choice to accept their abuse. Either La Aerea Nostra will clean up its act, which likely would result in profits, or Congress--who admittedly tends not to understand the industry well--will do it for them. The choice is the Six Families' to make.

Jim Kruggel
Washington, DC

Username: Cfalk [User Info]
Posted 2001-05-29 11:38:49 and read 32768 times.

I believe there are certainly things that can be done to improve the level of service in the U.S.. As the article states, many airports schedule many more flights that can possibly be accomodated at a certain time. Airlines do it so they can publish convenient-looking scheduled departure times, and airport authorities let them do it - as long as they get their landing fees, they don't care.

A very simple thing to do is to rate each airport as to how many movements (take-offs and landings) it can handle per time segment (say, per half-hour). If that number is, say, 60 movements during that time period, assuming good weather and proper spacing between aircraft, the airport should not be allowed to grant more than 60 slots during that period. Better yet, make it 60 movements less 10% or so, to take into account weather delays and unscheduled aircraft, like charters. And give the FAA the authority to punitively fine those airports that schedule more traffic than they are rated for.

This will certainly reduce the amount of traffic allowed to congregate at certain hubs, like Atlanta or Chicago. The solution: either build more runways, or the Airlines will decentralize to new hubs. Many airports in the U.S. are big enough to take more traffic and have plenty of runways (many are de-militarized Air Force bases, like Bergstrom in Austin).

I live in Europe, and fly very frequently. Why is it that I have NEVER been delayed for more than an 30 minutes, even at busy airports like Frankfurt or Heathrow, unless it was because a plane was being fixed due to a technical problem (pretty rare these days). That is, I believe because the local authorities only grant so many slots, and that is IT. Swissair, for instance is having a tough time getting slots into Paris again, after they had given many of them up previously. There are simply no more to be had, unless another airline releases their slots.

The U.S. is the only place I know of that will let passengers board and leave them to rot for hours, without having a confirmed departure time, or have to taxi for two hours (I've had both happen several times, Once we taxied so long we had to go back to the gate to refuel, starting the cycle all over again).

Maybe another rule is that a plane should not be allowed to board unless takeoff time has been confirmed. But I would leave that to a second phase. Let the first phase be the strict enforcement of movement limits on airports and the dispersion of some of this hub traffic.

Charles

Username: Sccutler [User Info]
Posted 2001-05-29 15:42:44 and read 32768 times.

Interesting perspective, but I challenge the apparent premise that poor airline service stems in any relevant measure from poor passenger attitude. There is a cause-and-effect relationship between the two, but it is the poor service which causes the bad acting of passengers (disregarding, of course, the random few who are simply jerks and whose actions should be responded to through prosecution under existing laws as appropriate).

Username: Srbmod [User Info]
Posted 2001-05-29 20:11:06 and read 32768 times.

No matter what the government tries to force onto the airlines, it still will not them enough to fully cooperate with any Passenger's Bill of Rights. The problem with the hub and spoke system is that at many of the hub airports, the airports have reached capacity years earlier than projected. A great case of this is at ATL. The current layout was supposed to reach capacity around 2015-2020, but it is nearing capacity as we speak. When the current airport was built, there were two airlines with major operations, Delta and Eastern. When Eastern went under in 1991, many of their gates remained unused until Delta took over a portion of the gates. Delta went from having gates on A and part of B to having all of B and part of D. Delta tried to truly make ATL a fortress, but were thwarted by the city. Delta is the dominate carrier in ATL because they control nearly 75% of the gates. Atlanta's solution to the capacity problem has been to build a new runway and a new terminal building on the southside of the airport. Unfortunately, this will reach capacity eventually, so a new airport site must be considered, but any attempt in the past has been thwarted by local residents. The solution for the airlines would be to start using more and more of less utilized airports and to do more point to point flights instead of hub to spoke flights. Adding more runways will help with delays, but the big problem is with the air traffic control system. The government has constantly removed upgrades to the ATC system from the budgets, and for the most part, many ATC centers are still using equipment from the 1960s. What's going on is that both sides want to blame the other for delays, and until they can both agree on a solution, the problem will remain.

Username: Highflyer16 [User Info]
Posted 2001-05-30 03:36:42 and read 32768 times.

First, I want to say that this is one of the most thoughtful and provacative articles I have ever read regarding the aviation industry or its problems.

I have long been a student of the industry from an ecomomic perspective, having studied in college under two professors who were leading proponents of deregulation, back in the 70s.

I agree with Mr. Ravich on his main point, specifically that the existing proposed legislation would do little to solve most airline industry problems, either from an industry, government or passenger perspective.

However, I also agree with Mr. Kruggel that some major changes are needed, and especially with his assertion that the "big six" do not actually compete with one another, but in fact act like little monopolies and avoid competition at all costs. In fact, when faced with competition from smaller carriers, their modus operandi has been to actually lower their fares below operating costs on those competetive routes only, in order to drive the startups out of business. Only Southwest, because it has become so big and powerful by itself, has been able to completely withstand this onslaught. Other competetive carriers have been forced to key primarily on underserved markets (such as Midwest Express has done) which may keep them flying, but will not allow them to become a major national airline.

There is no question that a lot of the airline's problems can be traced to the ridiculous "hub and spoke" systems that they currently use, which were mentioned in both the article and several responses. Actually, the "hub and spoke" system is not an economical one for moving passengers, because it requires the airline to provide two flights to most passengers in order to get them to their destination. As long as there is a sufficient number of passengers moving between two cities at any given time, the most efficient way to get them there, both in terms of costs and comfort, is to fly them directly there. The only reasons that big airlines abandoned profitable "point to point" routes in the 80s for the "hub and spoke" approach, is so that they could gain monopolistic control of certain markets, and also so that they could claim that they served the entire country. In order to do that, they yanked service from many smaller to mid-size cities, hurting those cities economies. It wasn't that most of these cities weren't big enough for airlines to serve them profitably (although a few weren't), but because the airlines preferred to put all their planes on hub-spoke routes between big cities, which they thought would be even more profitable. The hub and spoke system has in turn led to most of the other problems we are experiencing with service and delays.

In my humble opinion, the solution to the aviation industry's problems will be found neither in stifling government regulation, as Mr. Ravich so aptly explained, nor in a laissez-faire approach as Mr. Kruggel stated, because that approach does not actually guarantee free markets as much as it does monopolistic games, which the big airlines have become so adept at playing.
When the talk comes to government regulation in America, most of the argument centers around these two extremes. What actually works the best is for the government to establish the rules of competion for each industry to play by-- rules that are simple and easy to understand and comply with, but most importantly, rules that will build the industry into one that actually serves the public interest.

Although I never would have suggested these rules 23 years ago at the dawn of deregulation, I would now propose three rules that, if they had been there from the beginning, would have ensured free and fair competition, and maximized service potential, and even now, will stimulate new competition and a better use of industry resources, especially airports:

1) Limit the number of passenger connections each airline could make at every airport. The number would be the same for all airlines and would not vary by the number of flights an airline had from that airport. However, airlines wishing to use a specific city as a "hub" could get an additional allottment for connections in that city by providing through jet service to some of the smaller cities within that region. The more of these cities they served, the more passenger connections they would be allowed, over and above the base number. The reason for this provision is that through-jet service is preferable to the commuter planes serving small cities, both to the small cities, which appreciate jet service, and to the big airports, who now have a lot of their takeoff/landing capacity used up by these little planes. For example, in San Francisco, an airport usually operating way beyond capacity, United flies 12 times a day to the little town of Eureka, using 20-passenger prop planes. Unfortunately, those 12 planes take as much toll on the airport's flight capacity as 12 747s would. If United would just fly three jets per day, on through flights from other popular destinations like Los Angeles, Eureka would have better air service and SFO would have more capacity!

2) To guarantee competition in every city, no airline should be allowed to control more than 40% of a city's gate space at larger airports. This rule would not apply to smaller cities, where few airlines would fly anyway, only big ones that exceeded a certain passenger capacity.

3) Airlines could charge whatever fares they want, just like today, but their fares would be set for each zone,not each city independently. For example, from California, each airline would set a price for all of its east coast runs, another set price for midwest flights, and another for regional flights throughout the west. (International fares could still be priced by city). If they got competition in any given area, they could match their competitor's price, but they would have to do it on all routes, not just the one the competitor was flying. This rule would thwart any carrier's attempt to monopolize a market. For example, as it is today, American Airlines can kill any competitor that moves into its Dallas hub by pricing themselves below cost just on those few routes served by a small competitor. Under the proposed rule, American would have to lower its fares on many of its flights out of Dallas, and so they would not be able to play "Monopoly" there as they currently do.

What these rules would essentially guarantee is that people would always have a choice, not only between carriers, but also usually of carriers that will fly them directly to their destination. By eliminating the need for most "connections" except to small or international cities, it would allow us to make the best use of our existing airport resources. And once people have a true choice, then free-market forces will accomplish the rest!

Username: 747-451 [User Info]
Posted 2001-06-16 12:45:33 and read 32768 times.

Ravich's article is quite insightful, but misses a few points:

Passengers have no more choices. The airlines are consolidating and fortifying hub (fortresses) limiting not only our choice of airline, but airports, numbers of connections and even type of aircraft (why is it acceptible to fly a 757 from NY to LA when we stopped flying 707's on the same route in the early 1970s?, in "cattle class" no less?).

Economics, my eye! As the airlines consolidate, fares go up, period. They will charge what they want whether fuel prices go up or not~~that is passed on to us anyway....

Passenger behavior is 90% of the time because of the "attitude" of the arilines (there have ALLWAYS been a certain few who are idiots). If you are stuck on the ground for several hours (as in Detroit) with foul air and overflowing toilets, what do you expect. Passenger civility goes out the window when airlines treat them like cattle under these situations. Delays happen but Detroit was unconscionable (yeah, spelling!).

I don't have any answers, neither does Ravich. I agree with SRBMOD and HIGHFLYER16.

Market forces aren't working either. We the consumers dont want just 3 or 4 airlines controlling the market, that's for sure. Deregulation of 1978's intentions were good, but so poorly thought out and implemented. Looking back it was a mistake since now air flight is a shambles. When I was younger, I travelled all over the world with my parents. Now I avoid it like the plague.

Airlines like JetBlue are the answer; a throwback to the days when "service" led to passenger "loyalty"...as opposed to Big Airline X where you have no choice but to pay for "attitude", little planes with little room and lack of choices.

Username: Tango-Bravo [User Info]
Posted 2001-06-19 11:25:50 and read 32768 times.

Legislation that has been proposed and/or a passenger bill of rights are non-solutions to the air travel morass that has been created by the U.S. airline oligopoly (the "Big Six" plus TWA, America West and Alaska). At most, the legislation proposed or threatened, and the airlines' customer service commitments offered in response, are nothing more than plans for dealing with the symptoms of an industry gone awry. None of the proposals advocated by legislators or the airlines address the issue of how the root causes of the symptoms might be corrected.

The blame game that airline executives play in trying to deflect the ire of air travellers only serves to prove the correctness of comments recently found in reputable media by knowledgeable observers who describe the U.S. airline industry as "its own worst enemy" and "rife with incompetence." Instead of taking responsibility and action for what they could do to mitigate the effects of overscheduling and other issues, airline executives try to spin their industry as a helpless victim of government ineptitude.

Although I staunchly believe that the best government is one that governs least, there is a rightful place for federal intervention in the current airline scenario. Since the major airlines, with the exception of Southwest, have become a virtual cartel that has taken leave of its senses and scruples (if they truly care about giving satisfactory service as they purport to) there is a basis for government to act on behalf of consumers. The ideas that follow are ways in which action could be taken to greatly reduce the exasperating symptoms experienced by far too many air travellers far too often.

First and foremost, the FAA could act to reduce both the number of delays and their average length significantly by determining and enforcing realistic capactity limits at each of the nation's airports served by scheduled airline service. As suggested in one of the comments to Mr. Ravich's article, after determining the maximum number of takeoffs and landings that an airport can handle within a given time frame in ideal conditions, the number of slots allowed should be reduced by a percentage to allow for less than ideal conditions that occur. This appears to be the only way to stop the U.S. airline oligopoly from overscheduling in pursuit of its self-serving interests at the expense of travellers who, in most markets, have few if any meaningful airline choices.

At airports where movements need to be reduced, the governing body who allocates slots would determine the number to be awarded to each of the respective applicants on the merits of each airline's proposals for service from the airport concerned, making meaningful competition a paramount consideration. Except for today's 25 or so busiest airports, there would appear to be no need for choosing one airline over another in awarding slots, based on current movements.

Another leading consideration in deciding which airlines would be awarded slots at the busiest airports should be aircraft types to be scheduled. Simply put, preference should be given to airlines who would move more passengers with fewer flights. The DC-10, L-1011 and A-300 were responses to the industry's concern for airline traffic congestion 30 years ago, when it was far less of an issue than it is today. Efficient state-of-the-art succesors to these types are available today in the form of Boeing's 767 and 777 as well as the Airbus A-330.

Likewise, 737-600/700, A-318/319 and CRJ-700 types could serve smaller communities adequately at reduced frequencies, meaning fewer blips on ATC radar screens and less congestion at connecting cities. It seems likely that most who fly from smaller communities would welcome large jet service with fewer frequencies as a favorable tradeoff in place of more numerous frequencies into congested hubs with turboprops or smaller jets. For communities to which jet service is not feasible, 30-70 passenger aircraft could continue to serve.

If there has ever been a time when more people need to be moved on fewer flights, it is now. If projections hold true, the need will become even more acute as the future of air travel unfolds. While this concept seems obvious enough to even a casual industry observer, it seems that the latest promotional infatuation of airline executives, more flights to more places (through their congested hubs) with smaller jets, gives evidence of their disconnect from common sense.

Another potential effect of enforced capacity limits would be more non-stop flights that bypass hub airports altogether. Even at the busiest airports it seems there are periods of relative inactivity throughout any given day, between connecting banks of flights. Point-to-point arrivals and departures could be scheduled during these times. Moreover, when service is not hub-oriented, delays are more isolated, effecting fewer flights and travellers.

Another issue that begs for regulatory attention is the pricing practices of the the U.S. airline oligopoly. Once again, the need arises from the lack of true competition in most markets and airline managers who appear to have no scruples against exploiting their captive customers. Another result of airline pricing reform could well be to bring demand for air travel more into line with what the major airlines can realistically supply in terms of service at a satisfactory level.

Airlines would be required to submit fares by each city pair served, to be charged for tickets issued over the next 30 (perhaps 60 or 90) day period toward the end of each preceding period. Fares would remain strictly confidential until the effective date of the period for which they are filed. Each airline could file whatever fares they choose to, with the condition that the highest coach fare for any city pair (whether the routing is non-stop, direct or by connection) could be no more than double the amount of the lowest coach fare offered for the same city pair - or any amount in between - exclusive of applicable taxes.

Having complied with the 2:1 pricing range for coach fares, airlines would be free to implement yield management capacity controls in any way they choose. Airlines would also be free to impose restrictions and penalties of their choosing on the various coach fares offered. Fares for business and/or first class would be submitted in the same manner, except that only one fare would be offered for each city pair in each premium class of service. Airlines choosing to file and charge fares for business and/or first class would be required to show that these classes of service offer meaningful enhancements over coach class. Airlines would be free to offer complimentary, paid or redemptive class of service upgrades in whatever way they choose.

Also, airlines would be able to offer fares lower than those filed (web specials) in the interest of trying to fill flights deemed to be underbooked, with the restrictions that these fares could be offered only for travel to commence within 7 days of being made available and would be ticketed on a strictly use-it-or-lose-it basis. While non-airline websites and travel agents could continue to sell for the airlines, they too would be bound by the fares filed by the airlines they represent.

Pricing regulations, as outlined above, would not only be far more equitable than the outrageous disparities in what people pay for the same mediocre (at best) service offered by the U.S. airline oligopoly, it would also leave plenty of room for airlines to make market-based decisions in a more competitive environment. It would do away with the mindless copycat fares seen in today's market and force the airlines to make balanced decisions bewteen setting fares high enough to cover costs plus profit while forcing them to keep in mind the need to offer fares that will fill seats. In the interest of enhancing yield, airlines might also have a more compelling incentive to offer more business and/or first class seats at prices comparable to today's unrestricted coach fares, which would be unsustainable with a 2:1 restriction on the most/least that can be charged for coach class - to be able charge more, the airline oligopoly would actually have to offer more.

Fare reform along these lines would also go a long way toward dispelling the cynical attitudes the airline oligopoly has engendered in the public mind by the gouging and giveaway games they play with fares.

For Southwest, such reform would require little - if indeed any - change in their pricing of fares. The same is true for lesser-knowns who appear to be on the right track, including Jet Blue and Sun Country. For the U.S. airline oligopoly with its lack of realistic competition in most markets, it seems like nothing less than regulatory mandates that address the issues of overscheduling and pricing abuse in a decisive manner will force the industry back to its senses and bring sanity back to air travel.

More legislation of a litiguous bent, as implied by the very term passenger bill of rights, is not the answer to the troublesome state of U.S. airline service. Thoughtful re-regulation of limited scope, designed to address the real issues in real ways while allowing airlines marketing freedom within reasonable constraints appears to be the best, if less than ideal, answer.

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