Outside editorial: A better deal for airline passengers

Posted: Monday, April 14, 2008

L ast week, the annual Airline Quality Rating survey confirmed what most passengers already know: Airline performance is bad and getting worse.

More bags were lost, more passengers were bumped, more consumers complained and fewer flights arrived on time in 2007 than in 2006. The overall "quality score," according to the Associated Press, was the lowest since researchers began studying the airlines in 1991. What will it take to improve performance?

Given the option of government regulation or better self-regulation, we prefer the latter, but the record suggests that the hands-off model is not working. Last September, President Bush held a White House meeting with industry executives after noting, "There's a lot of anger amongst our citizens about the fact that, you know, they're just not being treated right." The meeting produced the usual promises to do better, but the airlines have yet to deliver.

Only a few airlines - JetBlue, Delta and United - have come up with a voluntary passenger bill of rights designed, among other things, to prevent those horror stories about fliers stranded on airplanes for hours on end.

At that White House meeting, Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said an advisory group would consider variable landing fees as one way to encourage airlines to switch to off-peak times to reduce delays. Last week, however, an uncooperative industry said it may sue to stop this effort.

The industry should take the results of Monday's survey as an urgent call for improvement. Just last week, a federal court struck down a New York state law that required carriers to provide better conditions - including food and water - for passengers stranded on airplanes for unacceptably long periods. The court reasoned - correctly, we believe - that airline regulation is a federal responsibility, not a proper area for state intrusion. But if the airlines can't do better on their own, the federal government should step in.

One place to begin is a proposal that mandates both carriers and airport operators to submit contingency plans to the government about how they will treat passengers in case of an emergency. Sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., this passenger bill of rights would allow fliers to leave the airplane if a delay is more than three hours, and - among other things - would also require airlines to "make every reasonable effort to return lost baggage within 24 hours."

These and some other provisions are not unreasonable. Because of high fuel prices, airlines have had to increase fares. That makes flying a more expensive proposition for passengers. The least they can expect is better treatment.

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