Fly­ing the friend­lier skies

Our view: Pro­tect­ing the in­ter­ests of U.S. air­line pas­sen­gers in­volves a mov­ing tar­get

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES -

With the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump as pres­i­dent, we’re prob­a­bly about to hear a lot more com­plain­ing about the evils of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion, per­haps as Ron­ald Rea­gan fa­mously did when he said, “The most ter­ri­fy­ing words in the Eng­lish lan­guage are ‘I’m from the gov­ern­ment and I’m here to help.’ ”

But like most mat­ters in­volv­ing the in­ter­twin­ing of gov­ern­ment and the pri­vate sec­tor, the re­al­ity of fed­eral reg­u­la­tions is more com­pli­cated than most politi­cians like to ad­mit. And there’s no bet­ter ex­am­ple to make that point than how Wash­ing­ton deals with the air­line in­dus­try, as ev­i­denced by the new reg­u­la­tions un­veiled last month by U.S. Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary An­thony Foxx that would help en­sure pas­sen­gers are both bet­ter in­formed and bet­ter pro­tected.

For those who have avoided air­ports over the last 40 years, here’s an up­date: Pas­sen­ger air travel has be­come cheaper but some­times hor­ri­fy­ing. Since the dereg­u­la­tion of the Rea­gan era, low-cost air­fare has pro­lif­er­ated, but trav­el­ers have paid a price. Planes are crowded, seats are smaller, niceties like meals are few, and, in re­cent years, add-on fees — ex­tra charges for bag­gage, carry-on or checked; slightly more leg room; guar­an­teed seats; air­port check-in and other ser­vices once con­sid­ered stan­dard — have pro­lif­er­ated.

As painful as air travel has be­come, Amer­i­cans are loath to give up their dis­count fares. So what is gov­ern­ment’s proper role? As the new rules make clear, it’s to make sure that in this un­cer­tain en­vi­ron­ment, trav­el­ers are still treated fairly. If an air­line prom­ises a ser­vice for an ex­tra charge, it ought to be de­liv­er­ing that ser­vice. So one of the first pro­tec­tions of­fered by the new rules is to re­quire air­lines to re­im­burse pas­sen­gers for de­layed lug­gage. If, for ex­am­ple, the bag you checked with Spirit Air­lines didn’t make it to your desti­na­tion air­port, then Spirit Air­lines had bet­ter re­fund that $30 han­dling charge.

And there are other pro­tec­tions, too. More car­ri­ers will be re­quired to re­port data such as on-time records and over­sales (smaller air­lines had been ex­empt from such re­port­ing) and all air­lines will have to re­port to DOT more in­for­ma­tion about mis­han­dled bags. In ad­di­tion, the de­part­ment is pur­su­ing a sep­a­rate rule to make sure con­sumers are fully in­formed about add-on charges and how much they cost at all points of sale, whether that’s on an air­line web­site or a travel agent or an on­line ser­vice like Trav­e­loc­ity, Or­b­itz or Ex­pe­dia.

This isn’t the first time that Congress has au­tho­rized the DOT to in­ter­vene in re­ac­tion to wide­spread con­sumer com­plaints New fed­eral reg­u­la­tions could make air­line travel some­what less painful. about the air­lines. But for­mu­lat­ing such rules isn’t easy. Un­der 2010 rules that pe­nal­ized air­lines for late de­par­tures, for in­stance, some car­ri­ers sim­ply started can­cel­ing more flights. That spared them mil­lions of dol­lars in fines, but it hardly helped con­sumers. In such cases, the an­swer isn’t to dereg­u­late or nec­es­sar­ily to toughen up but to col­lab­o­rate in de­vis­ing rules that will pro­mote trans­parency and set min­i­mum stan­dards of ser­vice.

The process seems to be work­ing. As painful as air travel may be, sur­veys sug­gest con­sumer sat­is­fac­tion is ac­tu­ally on an up­swing. A 2016 J.D. Power study found trav­el­ers are over­all as sat­is­fied with the ex­pe­ri­ence as they have been in a decade. Even pas­sen­gers an­noyed by add-on fees found the “a la carte” ap­proach slightly less trou­ble­some than the year be­fore, ac­cord­ing to the study. Mean­while, trav­el­ing on a U.S. pas­sen­ger jet re­mains one of the safest forms of trans­porta­tion, with no fa­tal ac­ci­dents since 2009 de­spite serv­ing more than 700 mil­lion pas­sen­gers an­nu­ally, ac­cord­ing to Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board data.

Air­line pa­trons may still find plenty to com­plain about when they head home this week for Thanks­giv­ing, a peak travel time, but it won’t be for an ex­cess of gov­ern­ment red tape. As Sec­re­tary Foxx noted, this is the third time the DOT has is­sued rules to pro­tect the in­ter­ests of pas­sen­gers. It prob­a­bly won’t be the last. In the real world, reg­u­la­tions aren’t all good or all bad; they are sim­ply a tool to en­sure pos­i­tive out­comes that mar­ket forces left alone won’t pro­duce.

BEN WEATHERS/BAL­TI­MORE SUN ME­DIA GROUP

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