I’m normally one of the bigger fans of Congress doing nothing, which is fortunate because it’s one of their most frequent accomplishments. But every once in a while a story comes along where I’m tempted by the idea of one of them speaking the most frightening words inside the beltway. (Hi. I’m from the government and I’m here to help!) Yesterday was one of those days.
While the new FAA authorization bill was being considered, an amendment was introduced which would have placed a moratorium on the airlines making further reductions in seat sizes and leg room. If you fly at all, I shouldn’t need to say any more, but as it turns out, there won’t be much more to say because the proposal was shot down.
If you’re seeking relief from sardine-can conditions on airline flights, don’t expect any help from Congress.
The Senate voted down an amendment Thursday that would have ended any further reductions of airplane seat sizes. The amendment failed on a 54-to-42 vote, with most Democrats supporting the amendment by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and most Republicans opposed.
The amendment to a sprawling bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration ordered a moratorium in reductions to seat size and pitch (i.e., the space between rows of seats) and empowered the FAA to set new standards, in consultation with experts, for seat dimensions that maintain “the safety, health and comfort of passengers.”
This is the sort of thing which can leave a small government conservative battling a case of schizophrenia. On the one hand, you don’t want the government meddling in ebb and flow of capitalism and telling the private sector how to best conduct their business. But on the other hand… have you been on a plane lately???
Normally this would be the point where I would splash some cold water on my face, return to my capitalist roots and cheer for the Republicans who shot this idea down. (And for the record, it was the GOP that killed it, with only Susan Collins voting in favor and Cornyn, Cruz and Durbin skipping the vote.) But there are a few mitigating factors in play when it comes to the airline industry.
Last summer I wrote about an announcement from the airlines which informed everyone that even with record low fuel prices and rising profits, we could expect to see smaller seats, less leg room, smaller carry on bags and higher ticket prices. Here was one of my conclusions.
Airline customer service is terrible, likely because they have no serious competition and people still have to travel so you, the customer, can just put up with it and shut up. I don’t remember the last trip I took where there weren’t problems on at least one leg of the travel. And nearly every flight is overbooked so they can fill every last seat. People are regularly asked to take a later flight in exchange for a travel coupon or are just booted if nobody volunteers. And based on the above reports, none of that is going to be changing.
There’s a reason that none of those awful aspects of air travel are improving, regardless of the market conditions. (Well, a few of them to be honest.) There simply isn’t any meaningful competition in the market anymore. A handful of domestic carriers charge essentially the same prices and offer the same decreasing levels of service. They are giants in a game which requires literally billions in start-up capital to get a seat at the table. They have a powerful industry alliance which contributes in massive amounts to Congress. If we were talking about a deli with tortuously uncomfortable seats, nobody would eat there and a competing eatery would open up down the block in a matter of weeks. But there is no such competition in the airline game so they have a free hand to do as they will.
Still, I can’t bring myself to yell at the Senate GOP for killing this bill, even if virtually all of them do accept a ton of donations from Airlines for America. And while the AfA’s argument is patently false when applied to their own industry, it’s still true in general for pro-capitalist conservatism. So – again – I’m not going to use this space to yell at our Senators today.
But when I go to the airport for the next political convention, you can rest assured that will change.