In any market, some basic elements may get neglected once in a while. JetBlue failed to devote sufficient resources to dealing with crises, and the consequences were dismal. But it learned an unforgettable lesson.
The carrier will pay the price 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 good will. 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 serve as a keen incentive for air carriers 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 cancelled 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.