Wednesday, August 11, 2010

And They Said It Couldn’t Be Done

Yet another round of corporate whining, moaning and fear mongering over a very simple consumer protection proves unfounded:
Only three commercial flights among the thousands that operated nationwide in June sat on the ground loaded with passengers for three hours or longer, the Obama administration said Tuesday, touting the impact of a new consumer-protection rule that threatens stiff fines against airlines for excessive tarmac delays.


Nationally, the three United flights stranded on June 18 marked a sharp drop in long tarmac delays from the same month last year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In June 2009, 268 flights nationwide were delayed at airports for at least three hours, according to the department's Air Travel Consumer Report.

The report also found there was no increase in the rate of canceled flights in June compared with the same month last year. Airlines canceled 1.5 percent of their scheduled domestic flights.

Some aviation experts have predicted that, faced with the possibility of multimillion-dollar fines for every seriously delayed plane, airlines would implement wholesale cancellations in poor weather well before the three-hour tarmac limit, inconveniencing the flying public more deeply than by waiting out long flight delays and eventually taking off.

Ah, yes. “Some aviation experts.” Remember them? Like this one?

But wait! If a flight is canceled, then the fine is void. Too bad no one can see the future to know what will happen next. Just kidding. We know exactly what will happen next.

So let's just go ahead and make this an official announcement: Starting in April, every flight that is delayed more than three hours in the United States of America is canceled. The flight that was delayed for the rainstorm that shows signs of clearing at 2 hours and 55 minutes? Canceled. The flight delayed for a repair that will take 3 hours and 4 minutes? Canceled.

Hmm, amazingly none of that happened! Shocking, I know. Here's another "expert":

The potential price for violating the rule means that in the short term, many domestic airlines will likely act “with an abundance of caution,” says Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights, and that planes sitting on the tarmac getting too “close to the three-hour bubble will [return to the gate] and be cancelled,” he says.

But my favorite is the “Out of Control Policy Blog” which always tells us free market fairies will sail in to solve every problem, right after they tell us there really isn’t a problem of course, just some whiny hippies who want to be pampered with glasses of chardonnay and plates of truffle oil-coated tofu. After repeating the same tripe about airlines cancelling each and every flight that even hinted at being three hours on the tarmac, he suggested the same tired “solutions” of “competition” and pointed out how the airlines which treat their passengers like crap suffer “big reputational penalties.” Oh noes, that's gotta hurt!

This last part was priceless:

In short, the feds should butt out, and let competition, pricing, and airport-airline cooperation continue developing workable solutions.

What these folks don't seem to understand is that "competition" is meaningless in an era of unrestrained monopolies and corporate consolidation (and no free-marketeer has ever come out in favor of government regulation of monopolies). In the last two years alone we've seen Delta and Northwest merge, and Continental and United merge. This has prompted industry observers to speculate that American Airlines, no longer the big player, will have to merge with another carrier (US Airways, which merged with America West in 2005, is often named as a likely partner. I think I need a scorecard!).

All of which means to say, when I fly somewhere, which is a few times a year, 90% of the time I have very little choice over which carrier I use. My decision is largely made for me by my destination because airlines have signed agreements with airports. Beyond that, my decision is made by my schedule and price. Never do I think, "Gee, now which carrier got negative press this year?"

But beyond that, I love these people who keep trying to tell us that free market fairies will protect consumers, even though the entire reason we are having a debate about something is because there is a problem, which means the free market fairies have not protected consumers. You know what protects consumers? The government telling them if they don't do the right thing they will get slapped with a big, fat fine. Problem solved.