The "Passenger Bill of Rights"

By Mark Vorzimmer
web posted April 1999

It does appear logical for anyone who has ever had a bad airline experience to embrace the "Passenger Bill of Rights" currently being proposed by Messrs. Clinton, Shuster, McCain, and Dingell. You feel captive -- economically, since you can't go to another airline without paying last minute total GNP prices, and physically, since you're ultimately stuck in a small confining airline seat. Legislated explanations of delays, double compensation for delays, required reporting of the number of frequent flyer seats, full consumer access to all airlines fares (by every airline), prohibitions on charges for certain ticketing practices, etc. ...why not? Well, you may want to take a closer look at any solution that looks this. At this point in history, something should appear radically wrong with the proposition that any problem requires a government-enforced solution -- logical perhaps, but wrong. Adding to this confusion is the unfortunate fact being the federal government already has regulatory control over the airline industry...unfortunate because the government may have caused the problem and its' arrogance refuses to prevent it from fixing.

As an interesting exercise, allow me to scatter some random dots and then attempt to connect them to issues facing the airline industry:

  • Air traffic has doubled since 1978 -- the year the industry was partially deregulated
  • Zero -- the number of deaths associated with US flag carriers in commercial aviation last year (The accident and death rate is half what is was before deregulation)
  • Every time new regulatory legislation passes through Congress, or a new reporting edict emits from the vast number of oversight bureaucracies in Washington, consumer prices in the affected industry go up. In other words, the industry does what it must to institute whatever changes are directed, then just pass the costs along to the consumers
  • Like good lifelong bureaucrats, in the Clinton's attempt to nationalize healthcare, they failed to reference the true cause of sky-high healthcare insurance for practitioners.
  • The Clintons' failure to reference the insurance costs for the healthcare industry was an ipso facto failure to reference the litigation costs that drive the insurance costs. And, it would be impolite, if not impolitic, to recognize they were the biggest supporters of both Clinton election campaigns. In other words, the government has a track record of failing to properly identify the causes of problems (at least in public, anyway), in an attempt to justify massive expansions to their regulatory authority
  • You are 4 000 times more likely to die in the progressively smaller cars government is mandating, than in an airplane. The government wants you in an airline seat, no matter which mode of transportation you choose
  • The popularity of one of the industry's fastest growing airlines -- Southwest -- is primarily attributed to their low prices. Southwest's low prices are primarily attributable to their no-frills service -- no advance seat assignments, no meals, and no variety in fares or seating configurations
  • Government is the reason blacks were forced to ride in the back of the bus years ago
  • The seats on commercial aircraft are too close because consumers want them that way.

Sitting the way Robert Crandall wants you to

Several years ago, a journalist asked Robert Crandall of American Airlines why he put his seats so close together. Crandall tersely shot back, "Because you want 'em that way". When the journalists protested by saying he didn't like flying with his knees in his chest, Crandall asked him if there was a first-class cabin on the airplane he was riding. When the journalist answered in the affirmative, Crandall pointed out that the journalist didn't buy one of those tickets.

Obviously, going head-to-head with the likes of Robert Crandall can be a humbling experience for anyone, but his point is one worth making. The marketplace will provide almost any product or amenity -- legal or otherwise -- for which customers are willing to pay, and as long as low prices continue to drive demand, the seats will continue to be placed as close together a consumers are willing to tolerate. When carriers spread the seats back out, as they have been known to do from time-to-time to placate complaining passengers, the resultant increase in per seat price causes sales to drop. In short, they lose customers to those carriers who don't 'relax' their seats.

Flying on the back of the plane

Looking to the government to remedy in-flight passenger complaints is just like looking to the government to solve racial problems. Few people recognize that the government forced blacks to ride on the back of the bus in the first place. Government -- city, state, and federal -- maintained racially hostile policies, then tried to remedy the situation with such strokes of genius as Plessy v. Ferguson (separate but equal), forced integration, and finally, more racial pie-cutting in the form of affirmative action. Popular sentiment affects racial tolerance, not legislation. Aren't you curious to know why affirmative action doesn't apply to U.S. Congress?

Waiting to inhale

The reason the airlines don't return to the gate to let their passengers breathe after hours of taxing in takeoff queues is because if they loose their place in line, it takes another couple hours to taxi back out and takeoff -- something customers like even less than staying in those queues . The government didn't create weather problems, but they did create just about every other hassle, including indirectly those too-close seats. If the government engaged in some real deregulation, every passenger could have their own Lazyboy -- similar to the first-class seat within which your local 'representative' flies . Most people recognize that the air carriers are not responsible for the long bottleneck takeoff, holding and landing queues affecting most passengers on their trips. No one, however, claims responsibility for plopping airport parking in the middle of a corn field five miles from the nearest gate, or a taxi, to or from the gate, so long you'd swear you were driving to your "final destination" (but you can guess who's responsible). Fredrico Pena, Clinton's former Transportation Secretary...and this is no joke...designed the new Denver International Airport Facility in such a way that no hotels could be accommodated anywhere near the airport. You have what are referred to as "airport hotels" but it's not because they are located near the airport -- it's because they're located near an airport -- Stapleton, the old one -- a thirty-mile shuttle ride that takes anywhere from thirty to sixty minutes (depending on weather).

The Passenger Bill of Rights...fewer flying hassles, through less flying

Airline travel has never been safer, more reliable, or better -- inspite of government attempts to make it safer, more reliable, and better. If you want to speculate on what government can do to make air travel better, take a good look at what they do they do. They provide social security. OK, bad example. They deliver mail. OK, another bad example. They... OK, don't look at what government does, listen to what they say. They believe in equality. OK, we already discussed that -- they may not. As with the Clinton's healthcare "crisis", don't let government convince you of a problem in an area they have controlling authority over, and then tell you how they are going to fix it. Something much different is usually going on...they're about to engage in another power grab.

The great thing about living in a quasi-market driven society is that you get a chance to vote with your dollars (now relegated to a more precious status that the lever). Fight the notion that just because something may be problematic, a government solution is necessary. Government solutions cost money -- both because they result in vast bureaucracies to implement, and secondly, because the affected industry raises prices to cover the cost of implementation. And remember, if the solution had no cost, it wouldn't be compulsory -- the airlines would already be doing it. The next time you have a bad experience, don't call your legislator, choose another airline. The alternative is to support the Passenger Bill of Rights, and lose a right -- the right to fly more often. If any of the specious customer friendly legislation passes it will undoubtedly cause prices to go up, and you may indeed experience fewer flying hassles, but you also may be flying less as a result.

Mark Vorzimmer can be reached at

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