Don't Regulate Unfriendly Skies

Forget campaign finance reform: there's one issue that politicians on both sides of the aisle know will score them big points in the next election-airlines.

Hating them, that is.

With nerve-wracking flight experiences from Spring Break still fresh in our minds, many of the pending congressional proposals to regulate airline customer service may seem long overdue. Most of these proposals have to do with legislating the "rights" of air passengers-which could be anything from requiring airlines to provide more complete information about flight delays, to mandating the number of peanuts that should be served per person.

But before Congress nudges Northwest to give you a full can of soda on your next flight (oh, and also give you a dirt-cheap fare for that trip to Fiji), we must ask a much more fundamental question. Do Americans have a "right" to good service on airlines, or even a right to air travel at all?

Clearly, the answer is no. People do not have any sort of fundamental right to take private transportation. I have no right to go Greyhound, just as I do not have any sort of right to good service in a restaurant.

So why then does Congress want to re-regulate the airline industry just 22 years after it was deregulated?

The issue, in my mind at least, stems from many people's feeling that they are totally at the mercy of airlines when flying.

I have experienced this feeling on any number of occasions. Returning from a trip on Sunday, even, Northwest Airlines refused to issue a boarding pass for one of my blockmates who I was traveling with, even though we had reconfirmed our tickets and requested seat assignments days before the actual flight. We had done everything right and followed all the rules, so how could they prevent one of us from flying?

The response to scenarios like this one, happening every day in airports across the country, is to throw up one's hands and exclaim, "Something must be done!" (perhaps adding in a few profanities, as is the trend). That "something," however, is not to make a law specifying what a private company must provide in the realm of good service.

The government can, and does, regulate the industry in all areas of safety, since airplane maintenance practices and pilot training all have the potential to take lives. But delineating, for instance, how much a passenger must be compensated when she is bumped from a flight, is best left to market forces and the airlines themselves.

As a first line of action, passengers need to be more realistic-and savvier-consumers when it comes to airline travel. Flyers should not expect premium service on a super-saver, $89 fare. What's more, travelers ought to punish poorly performing carriers by diverting their business to other airlines (such as Southwest, Midwest Express and JFK-based Jetblue), which consistently win awards for superior service. And at the most basic level, I can only say that if flying is such an awful experience, then don't fly. The U.S. has plenty of forms of alternate transportation to get you where you want to go.

Airlines, to be sure, also need to shoulder a much greater share of the burden in improving their image, as promising to improve only works if they actually follow through. Carriers need to do what they can to reduce delays, provide more accurate and timely information to passengers, and to offer customers more courteous and pleasant service.

All of this hinges, however, on the ability of new entrants to survive in the industry. While Americans may not have a right to good service aloft, they do deserve to enjoy the benefits of rigorous competition at our nation's airports. While I do not suggest that mega-carriers are necessarily anti-competitive, the government needs to make sure that entrants can have reasonable access to so-called "fortress-hub" airports and are not the victims of illegal price collusion. As Southwest Airlines has demonstrated in all of the places where it has established a vibrant presence, the more options available to travelers, the more financial incentive there is for poorly-performing carriers to improve.

More than anywhere else in the world, Americans enjoy a safe commercial airline system that flies to more destinations for relatively little money. Unquestionably, we should strive to reach a system that inconveniences travelers as little as possible. But more than anything else, savvy consumers should use their pocketbooks-and not their representatives in Washington-to punish carriers that consistently provide bad service.

Scott A. Resnick '01 is a economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.