Friday, April 30, 2010

Tarmac Rules Trap Passengers and Airlines on a Flight to Nowhere

I’m beyond weary on the subject of air traveler complaints. I started to feel a little grouchy after my story on baggage fees ran in The New York Times a few weeks ago. The story explained that all passengers are not created equal. Those traveling with heavy or multiple bags cost the airline more. It’s this simple; weight and space equals cost.

Meantime, Stacey Dougherty, editor of takes the position that airline customers “are not going to put up with being nickel and dimed and treated like cattle.” She is far from alone in viewing today’s air passengers as helpless victims. But the expectation of air travelers is simply out of touch with any sensible assessment of the economics of the industry.

Here is the dilemma. For the most part, travelers decide on an air carrier based on cost. But the largest expense categories for airlines are those most difficult to control; fuel and labor. They simply can’t fly a planeload of passengers for what they make on tickets alone. Baggage fees, onboard sale of food, drinks, movies and internet, premium seats and early boarding - passengers see these as add-ons but they are in fact, an alternative method of making what it costs to provide service.

To be sure, the present predicament is a product of airline deregulation but I’m not going to dive into this now-generations-old dispute. I will merely insist that the disconnect between passenger expectations and what airlines can deliver is on par with the gulf between Huffington Post and Fox News.

Passengers want comfortable, safe airplanes. They want good-humored flight attendants who are happy with their jobs because they are fairly compensated. They want experienced, rested, well-trained pilots who are focused on task. They want room for their knees and space for their carry-ons. They want frequent service to their destination and an empty seat next to them on the plane. They want to get where they are going without delays or restrictions. And they want to bring another 30-50 pounds of stuff at no additional charge.

Some of this is not unreasonable but much of this is fantasy. Because while airlines have been engaged in the very public blood sport of undercutting each others’ fares, out of the view of passengers, they are whacking away every expense, in areas too many to list here. Suffice to say, the effect of this cost cutting directly impacts passenger convenience, employee morale and air safety.

Passengers’ unrealistic expectations have been allowed to go uncorrected for too long creating a burbling groundswell of hostility into which politicians and policy makers have come rushing with quixotic fixes. The relationship between passengers and airlines is deeply strained and passenger-bill-of-rights legislation and tarmac laws are as unlikely to fix the problem as having a baby is likely to save a marriage.

It wasn’t more than ten days ago, volcanic ash virtually shut down air transport throughout Europe. That should serve as reminder of just how integral the airline industry is to the global economy.

Passengers trapped on the tarmac is a suitable symbol for the present plight of air travelers and airlines. We are stuck with our anger and with each other and we are going nowhere.

The solutions that will work take into account the needs of both passengers and airlines. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick to fix commercial aviation in the United States. But if you ask me, that is a trip worth taking.

No comments: