Would you like the government to "fix" air travel for you?

We recently took a look at a current proposal which would “privatize” (though not really) the air traffic control functions of the Federal Aviation Administration. This, however, is not a story about that plan. While the FAA definitely has more than a few problems in the management of air traffic, they pale in comparison the horrible experience most Americans endure when they have to actually board one of these planes for a trip. Is that something Congress should be looking into? Christopher Elliot at the Washington Post sees some upsides to the aforementioned FAA restructuring plan, but seems to believe that they’re missing the bigger picture in two key areas.

One of the passenger issues is seat size. An amendment called the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act, which was proposed by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), failed in committee. The act would have established minimums for seat size and pitch (the distance between rows) in the interests of protecting passenger safety and health…

The second issue: fare disclosure. An airline-supported amendment, introduced late during the bill’s markup session by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), would allow an airline to prominently quote a fare without taxes and other mandatory fees.

The amendment, called the Transparent Airfares Act, would reverse the Transportation Department’s popular full-fare advertising rule, which requires airlines to quote the entire fare but permits them to break down the taxes and fees less prominently.

On the issue of seat size the airline industry has taken a hard line, with one spokesperson insisting that, “the government should not regulate, but instead market forces, which reflect consumer decisions, and competition should determine what is offered.” That’s an interesting attitude for an industry which spends massive amounts of lobbying dollars to keep the FAA in line with the goals of the major airlines. Suddenly they’re opposed to regulations which might make the passengers feel a bit less like sardines in a can.

Unfortunately this question isn’t as simple as it seems at first. I’ll confess, speaking as someone who has to fly a fair bit for business reasons, a greedy portion of my lizard hind brain leaps at the idea of having Congress come in and smack the airlines down. The seats are too small, the service is horrible, the flights are overbooked… the list goes on. But is this something that conservatives should get behind? Do we really want to entrust Congress with making air travel more comfortable?

Putting aside my emotional response to how awful flying generally is (unless you can afford to travel with Jennifer Aniston on the snobbiest airline ever), the response from the industry is actually the correct one. We should have a system where the airlines have to compete for our business and offer the best service for the most affordable price. Asking the government to make determinations about how much seat space we need or whether you should get one bag of peanuts or two only means that the someone from the government will be deciding what you need or deserve. If that doesn’t give you pause then you probably deserve to fly coach.

But what about when the free market breaks down? The airlines haven’t been “competing” in any meaningful sense of the word in ages. They’ve consolidated down to a handful of carriers who miraculously seem to simultaneously slash services and seat sizes while whipping prices around all at nearly the same time. Congress is trying to approach the seat size issue from the perspective of safety, but I’m not sure I buy that either. How much faster will you get to the emergency escape door with three more inches of leg room?

This one leaves me in a bit of a dilemma, but I’m open for suggestions.


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