CHICAGO -- On Valentine's Day, a major storm in Pennsylvania tied up traffic along 50 miles of Interstate 78 and adjoining highways. Many travelers were stranded for as long as two days. One driver needed 12 hours to go 100 miles. So I've got an idea: Enact a federal bill of rights for highway motorists, guaranteeing that they will never again be stuck in a weather-related traffic jam for more than three hours.
Does that sound crazy? No crazier than an idea that is being taken seriously in Washington these days: an airline passengers' bill of rights, which would require planes to return to the gate after three hours. This proposal comes in the aftermath of an appalling episode in which travelers on nine JetBlue flights were stuck on the tarmac at New York's Kennedy International Airport for more than six hours during a horrendous ice storm.
The prerogative of taking their business elsewhere is the best protection consumers have in air travel or any other sector. Not only are politicians unlikely to do a better job managing commercial aviation than the airlines are doing, but their intervention is bound to make things worse for both carriers and their customers.
Incidents like the one at JFK make headlines because they are not only appalling but rare. From 2000 through 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, some 330 aircraft have been held on the tarmac for more than five hours awaiting takeoff. But as the Business Travel Coalition points out, there were 88 million flights during that time.
American carriers have lost money four of the last five years. Over the past two decades, fares have dropped by half after accounting for inflation. That didn't happen because of government mandates but because of relentless, brutal competition for customers.
Many travelers, of course, dream of quality onboard meals, more legroom and fewer delays. But if those were truly a priority, plenty of companies would raise fares to pay for them. The immovable fact about people who fly, though, is that most will choose the cheapest flight. But saddling carriers with rigid federal rules will mean higher costs and higher fares.
JetBlue will pay the price for its mistakes in two ways. The first is in compensation paid to customers, since anyone stranded for three hours or more will get a full refund and a free round-trip ticket to anywhere the airline flies. The second is in lost goodwill. After years of getting reviews that Meryl Streep would envy, JetBlue may find that some travelers would rather hitchhike than take another chance of being held captive. That's why the airline doesn't need a government mandate: It's establishing its own bill of rights for customers.
The penalties of the marketplace are a keen incentive for airlines to prevent long delays. But in a world of full planes, congested airports and bad weather, there is no way to guarantee travelers will never have to endure such inconveniences.
A federal law can't banish the events that create snafus. For the government to impose a three-hour limit will have one simple effect: more canceled flights.
Being stranded on the tarmac for four hours is bad. Spending two days sitting on a suitcase in the departure area may be worse.
In the end, we're better off leaving decisions about airline operations to the people who have the most expertise, who know the specifics of each particular situation, and who ultimately have to answer to their customers. If there is a better way to avoid major tie-ups, they'll figure it out sooner than Congress will. Politicians can prosper offering empty solutions. Capitalists, as JetBlue can attest, are not so lucky.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays. His e-mail is email@example.com.