The Gross, Bad and Ugly Nature of Air Travel

New Senate bill addresses flight cancellations and rising fees

Many Americans detest air travel — and there is much to detest: long security lines, invasive body searches, late flights, cancellations, and of course those tiny bags of peanuts.

There’s nothing new there. But now the U.S. Senate is nearing passage of a new bill that would enact new regulations designed to create a better consumer experience. The bill includes a comprehensive attempt to regulate the burgeoning drone industry and new consumer protections. These protections include:

  • Reviewing how airlines provide “information on decisions to delay or cancel flights that may be fully or only partially due to weather related causes.”
  • Creating a standard method of ancillary fee disclosure, so baggage and seat selection fees aren’t the nasty surprise they are so frequently.
  • Requiring airlines to repay baggage fees if items are lost or delayed.
  • Requiring airlines to automatically repay fees for services purchased —like seat selection or early boarding — but not received.

That air travel is a unique form of torture akin to a stroll through the ninth circle of hell is something on which nearly all Americans can agree, regardless of partisan affiliation. The glory days of in-flight smoking and flirtatious, smiling stewardesses in form-fitting miniskirts are gone. We are cursed to live instead in an age of cramped seats, intrusive security measures, and hidden baggage fees, so it’s no surprise the government wishes to take some measures to address consumer dissatisfaction.

Although Americans’ opinions of the airline industry are actually positive overall, according to a 2015 Gallup poll, a closer look at the facts in the air — and in airports — paints a slightly more turbulent picture.

Just over a third of Americans viewed the airline industry positively, but just under a third viewed it negatively, the poll showed. The industry’s “net positive” rating was positive by a mere 3 percent, well within standard margins of error.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Americans’ Views on Airline Industry” source=”Gallup , A4A”]Only 35% of Americans view industry favorably|32% of Americans view airline industry unfavorably|20% of passengers in 2015 were dissatisfied with their experience|Industry ranks in bottom third based on favorability[/lz_bulleted_list]

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This, Gallup notes, puts the airline industry in the bottom third of industries based on consumer satisfaction. The only industries which 35 percent of Americans or fewer viewed positively in 2015 are the legal field, the pharmaceutical industry, the oil and gas industry, and the federal government.

And indeed, 20 percent of Americans who flew in 2015 were not satisfied with the experience, a report by Airlines for America (A4A) — the industry’s lobbying arm — released in April 2016 found.

The new consumer protections in the 2016 FAA Reauthorization Bill should in part make flying a more pleasurable experience for consumers. Eighty-five percent of consumers said total travel price was their biggest consideration in flying, and the new fee disclosure and repayment regulations in the bill will certainly do something to alleviate the stress of price consideration.

Interestingly, the aspect of air travel that consumers seem to most want airlines to improve is onboard comfort. Seventy-one percent of consumers ranked this as the number one area in need of improvement, according to the A4A report. Since the industry was deregulated in 1979, airline seats and the spaces in between them (the “seat pitch”) have gotten smaller, so it’s no surprise that many consumers find airline discomfort an issue.

Indeed, Sen. Chuck Schumer actually proposed an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill designed to regulate seat width and seat pitch. While this is certainly a more pressing matter for the freakishly tall and those incapable of exercising self-control when confronted with food, it should not be a pressing matter for the government.

The fact is smaller seats equal cheaper tickets, and many budget airlines — a favorite of the American consumer — rely on small seat size and the resulting increase in number of seats for their business model. Moreover, giving the federal government the ability to regulate seat size on planes may inevitably open the door to federal regulation of seat size on trains and buses.

Schumer’s intrusive and overbearing regulation was thankfully defeated, avoiding the possibility of creating a backdoor for the government regulation of seat size in public transport in general and hopefully preventing one or more budget airlines from going bust.

The regulation regarding consumer protection included in the original 2016 FAA Reauthorization Bill is designed to protect airlines from taking advantage of consumers. The sort of regulation proposed in the defeated Schumer amendment is designed to control the very nature of the services those airlines can offer.

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