Steve Chapman

Christmas is nigh, and Santa Claus is not the only person who will be flying to make his appointed rounds. This holiday season, according to the Air Transport Association (ATA), 41 million passengers will take trips by air.

No, that is not a misprint. We are in the middle of a stupendous mass migration that has become a routine event. It's just a small part of the explosion of air travel in our time. Since 1988, the number of people boarding domestic and international flights in the United States has climbed by 63 percent.

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The increase has not happened because flying is so much more fun than it used to be. It's occurred because flying is so much cheaper. The average fare today is $301. If ticket prices had merely kept up with inflation over the last decade, it would be $427.

Everyone would like more space, free food, pillows galore, carefree flight attendants and all the other amenities once associated with air travel. But what we would like is not the same as what we will pay for. Given a choice between enjoying amenities and saving money, most of us invariably choose the latter. We want to get to our destination as cheaply as possible, and the air travel market has accommodated that preference.

The decline in prices, adjusted for inflation, has come at the expense of the airlines, which have gotten used to providing their services at well below cost. They have lost money in six of the last eight years, piling up net losses of nearly $60 billion and making bankruptcy a more common occurrence than snowfall at O'Hare.

For all that, we should be grateful to the people who run and staff the commercial air carriers. But the Obama administration thinks fliers are getting a raw deal and need what it calls a "passenger bill of rights." This week, the Department of Transportation issued a rule decreeing that airlines may not keep passengers waiting on the runway for more than three hours without giving them a chance to flee for the exits.

Nor may carriers hold their flights for more than two hours without furnishing food and water to everyone on board. Any carrier that doesn't meet these requirements will face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger. On a plane with 140 passengers, that would add up to more than $3.8 million.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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