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 airport for more than six hours during a horrendous ice storm.
Right now, air travelers have only the same Bill of Rights as everyone else -- the one assuring freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right against self-incrimination, and so on. Not mentioned in that document, however, is another inalienable right, namely the freedom to spurn any airline they find unsatisfactory and choose one that will serve them better.
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. On average, you can fly more than 260,000 times before your luck will run out.
Everyone who flies has gripes about air travel, but there are not many businesses in which customers pay for less than they get. That is not a figure of speech but a financial fact: 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 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.