A Real Bill Of Rights For Passengers

Well, the sure signs of summer are upon us once again. The temperature is rising, there are tourists everywhere, and things are slowing down to a crawl. And that’s only in the nation’s airports.

Instead of barbeques and baseball, the hallmark of summer in America increasingly seems to be air-travel delays. With problems this year running at about last year’s record level, Americans can expect to spend quite a bit of time sitting on hot tarmac over the next few months.

The media—and many politicians—have had little difficulty pointing out the villains behind all this. It’s the greedy airlines, of course. A much-publicized report by the Transportation Department’s Inspector General this February seemed to confirm this: Airlines hadn’t met the passenger service goals they committed to last year. The obvious conclusion: It’s time for the government to come in and fix things.

A closer look at that report shows a different story. The customer service record of the airlines was decidedly mixed—with improvements in many areas, and persistent problems in others. But the report also concluded that the primary source of consumer dissatisfaction—delays—could not be solved by the airlines themselves. The source of that problem, it turns out, is the FAA’s air traffic control system, as well as local airport authorities. Instead of being the hero, it turns out the government is the villain.

A number of studies have since come out detailing how FAA mismanagement has helped put the air travel system into the mess that it’s now in. The General Accounting Office, for instance, recently reported on how the FAA’s modernization program, begun 20 years ago, has encountered delay after delay, with key projects years behind schedule and costing billions more than budgeted. No wonder the FAA was the last user of vacuum tubes in the world.

These facts are seemingly buried in the public debate. Sure, there’s lots of talk of improving the FAA. It has already announced yet another modernization plan, and there are talks of instituting a “performance-oriented culture,” whatever that is. But Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta has squelched talk of more substantial steps, such as privatization (a step Canada, a nation hardly known for its immoderation, has already taken).

Instead, the focus is on new regulation, through a “Passengers’ Bill of Rights.” While the airlines have responded by voluntarily adopting various customer service guarantees, it’s far from clear this will stop the pro-regulation bandwagon. And the demands are almost certain to grow. One passenger advocacy group, for instance, recently issued a wish list of new rules. These included everything from mandated refunds for delays (200 percent of the ticket price for delays of 2-3 hours) to notification to passengers of the name of all insecticides used on the aircraft.

But why stop there? If we really need a bill of rights for passengers, why not apply it to the government as well? Why not a right to reimbursement from the FAA when your flight is delayed due to air traffic control problems? Maybe a right to a tax refund when money is wasted on horribly mismanaged “improvement” projects? Many current proposals would require airlines to identify chronically delayed flights. Why not require FAA bureaucrats to inform passengers of chronically delayed improvements and antiquated equipment? Let’s even require members of Congress to inform voters of the government’s role in mucking up their travel schedules.

Now there’s a bill of rights that gets to the heart of the problem. Does anyone have the courage to propose it?

This article originally appeared in the June 2001 issue of CEI Update.