State Level Airline Regs: Great Idea. . .Not.

The Associated Press reports that a New York state judge has dismissed an airline industry suit against the state’s newly enacted Airline Passenger Bill of Rights. On its surface, the law appears pretty reasonable: When passengers are stuck on the ground for more than three hours, airlines must provide them with bathrooms, air conditioning, food, and water. At least twice in recent memory, airlines have left passengers on runways without these things. JetBlue did it in early 2007 and Northwest did the same in 1999. Both airlines refunded nearly all of the air fare they had collected, offered other compensation to stranded passengers, and took major blows to their reputation. (JetBlue even saw itself dropped from BussinessWeek’s list of the best service companies as a direct result.) For financial reasons alone — not to mention reputation and simple commitment to service — airlines will do everything they can to avoid these situations.
So New York state’s law is a bad idea for two reasons:
First, it’s likely to result in a lot more cancellations. When the weather turns bad, airlines will jump to cancel flights rather than get passengers stuck on the runway and suffer state-level fines in addition to the enormous costs in reputation and refunds they’ll pay anyway. Obviously, both JetBlue and Northwest should have canceled (or delayed boarding). On the other hand, the fact that mass “strandings” have happened only twice in the past 10 years indicates that, for the most part, airlines cancel about the right number of flights already.

Second, it creates state-level regulations for something that seems the quintessential place for federal law. Nearly all flights cross state lines. On purely practical grounds, having 50 separate state sets of airline standards and practices would create chaos, increase the cost of flying, and do little to improve service.

On purely practical grounds, New York state’s law deserves to go.