It always comes in waves.
Back before 9/11, air traffic had hit record high levels and airports were starting to feel the strain. Stories like the one where Northwest flights sat on the ground in Detroit for hours on end during a major snowstorm caused customer anger to reach new heights.
It got to the point where Congress began debating a customer bill of rights. In the end, the airlines narrowly averted regulation by agreeing to a voluntary customer service commitment called Customers First. The commitments were worded basically the same for every domestic airline because it came from the ATA. Instead of listing them here, I’ll give you links to a handful if you’d like to check them out:
After 9/11, most people forgot about these commitments. There were fewer flights in the air and a lot fewer passengers which meant less congestion and better on time performance.
As you can see from the DOT traffic info, traffic really started climbing again in 2003 and delays began to mount. There have been periodic reports about how the airlines haven’t really kept their promises, but it took something major to get people really talking about this again.
Thanks to a horribly delayed American flight and a well-timed article by Scott McCartney in the Wall Street Journal, the issue has returned to center stage. This particular flight was diverted to Austin due to thunderstorms and sat on the ground for 8 hours. McCartney’s vivid description certainly fanned the flames. The article begins:
After hours of sitting on the runway, the toilets on the American Airlines
jet were overflowing. There was no water to be found and no food except for a
box of pretzel bags. A pregnant woman sat crying; an unaccompanied teen sobbed.
The captain walked up and down the aisle of the MD-80, trying to calm angry
passengers. At one point, families with children lined up to be bused to the
terminal, but a bus never came.
Now, a movement is underfoot once again to regulate the airlines and their customer service commitments. This latest movement can be found under the banner of Coalition for Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights. If you’re interested in seeing the details, head on over to their blog and read the bill of rights in the column on the right side.
What do I think about all this? Now, I’m generally not a fan of piecemeal government regulation. When the airlines came out with their Customers First commitment, I thought that would be the end of it. Unfortunately, the airlines didn’t take it seriously and have not lived up to the commitments they made, so it makes it harder to defend them. If the airlines made commitments, there should be some requirement that they actually abide by them.
Some of the new requested commitments should still be left to market forces. If one airline is quicker at responding to customer complaints than another airline, customers will choose that first airline if it’s really important to them. Of course if an airline doesn’t respond to any complaints at all, Dateline will pull out a hidden camera and give them all the bad press they could hope for.
Same thing goes for delay notification. That is one of my pet peeves, and if I knew that one airline was better at keeping customers informed, I would probably shift my business that way.
That being said, there are some basic commitments here that I think should be regulated by the government because they involve health and safety. These include providing for special needs passengers and ensuring access to food, water, restrooms, and medical help during long delays.
In the end, I’m not a fan of the government meddling in bits and pieces unless it involves health and safety. Beyond that, if you’re going to reregulate the industry, do it completely instead of poking your head in wherever it’s politically desirable. If the government really wants to encourage improved customer service, some sort of incentives (ie mail contracts, new route awards, etc) or tax credits (ie tax credit for RFID investments for bag tracking) should be used unless they want to back up and regulate the entire industry all over again.