Entrepreneurs Still Finding Sunny Skies

When JetBlue Airlines makes its debut this winter, its passengers may be reaching for buckets of popcorn instead of peanuts.

The airline industry’s latest contender, unveiled this summer to the relief of frazzled travelers seeking a third way between no-frills service and high fares, JetBlue plans to turn its seats into virtual movie theaters.

Flights, initially among 12 Northeast cities, will feature dozens of satellite-fed movie and television channels on seatback screens.

Regulators have long asserted that airlines don’t do enough to please customers, and tout federal rules as the solution.

While no one can predict whether JetBlue’s airborne “TV Land” strategy will work, it demonstrates that America’s markets successfully generate pressure and opportunity to meet consumer demands.

With the backing of billionaire George Soros and a fleet of brand new jets, the effort also belies regulators’ claims that the market, can’t generate muscular new competitors.

The Federal Aviation Administration and members of Congress spent the early part of the year pushing for strict customer-service regulation.

Fortunately, they listened to arguments that the new regulations would restrict competition and raise prices. Airlines and Congress reached a voluntary agreement this summer. At the moment, customer demand, competition and free choice rule the airways, not bureaucrats.

Since airline deregulation began in 1979, competitive pressures have tilted the market heavily in favor of consumers seeking deals.

Several airlines offer serious frills, charging higher prices and catering to travelers who want all the amenities.

Conversely, Southwest’s boy-al following likes the airline’s “we fly, for peanuts” style and fares.

With JetBlue aiming to lay down a middle path, competition is producing real options for consumers. Yet federal regulators remain eager to roll out the red tape.

By arbitrarily defining and enforcing “good” service, bureaucrats would rob some consumers of choices and price others out of the market entirely; Southwest Airlines voiced doubts about the viability of its low-fare strategy if proposed regulatory schemes were adopted.

Whether an airline offers no frills or royal frills, setting the range of possibilities isn’t a concern for government.

Federal regulators shouldn’t restrict the field by imposing a single definition of customer service on Americans who have their own ideas about the meaning of a dollar well spent.

When JetBlue’s first flights lift off the runway and the movies roll, its passengers just may decide they want to round out the experience.

If it has the sense to survive in a competitive market, JetBlue won’t be scrambling for popcorn — it’ll be asking, “Butter or salt with that?” More than career bureaucrats could ever hope to, entrepreneurs march to whatever beat customers play.

By Max Boucher