The Brancatelli File



February 15, 2007 -- Like the Claude Rains character in Casablanca, I am shocked--shocked!--that the nation is shocked by airlines holding their passengers hostage on aircraft during storms.

As business travelers, you and I know that the airlines do stuff like this all the time. JetBlue Airways' Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out in New York yesterday and American Airlines' Riders on the Storm act in Texas six weeks ago might be notable for the quantity of flights they abandoned and the duration for which they held customers in tubular prisons. But not a day goes by when some passengers somewhere aren't being screwed by a once-unimaginable airline atrocity or another.

It doesn't matter if the airline apologizes promptly and publicly--as JetBlue did yesterday evening so that its protestations of remorse made the late-night local news shows--or if, like American, the airline hems, haws, stumbles, stonewalls and, six weeks later, continues to dispute picayune details of the wholly indefensible.

Airlines are as airlines do--and they'll do whatever is good for them regardless of the impact on their paying passengers. They are Sky Gods and you are serfs. They rule by divine right. You are expected to obey.

But a passenger's bill of rights? Really? Do we want to waste our time going down that blind alley again? If a shocked--shocked!--nation couldn't convince Congress to pass a passenger's bill of rights after Northwest Airlines callously abandoned an entire hub full of travelers in the snow in 1999, what power do we have to motivate our legislators to act now?

More to the point, why should we want to? No law on earth can legislate morality. If airline executives don't get that warehousing planeloads of people for hours on end is morally reprehensible, what act of Congress would change their hearts and minds? And what good would a passenger's bill of rights be when the next snowstorm or thunderstorm hits and the same overworked, underpaid line managers make the same atrocious decisions because their Sky God bosses demand that internal operational imperatives trump basic humanity?

No, fellow travelers, trying to legislate an amorphous, generically worded bill of rights won't make business travel better. But we can improve business travel if we focus on fixing what is really wrong with the system.

If you truly want to make a demonstrable impact on our lives on the road, forget about agitating for a passenger's bill of rights. Instead, contact your legislator and tell them you want action on these four points.

One of the reasons why life on the road is despicable is that we come to the airport angry and exhausted after fighting our way through the airlines' Byzantine fare structures to buy a ticket. Like the merchant in the Casablanca bazaar who has a string of dubious discounts for special friends of Rick, the airlines have a mind-numbing array of prices with a Gordian knot of restrictions. Their goal, of course, is simple: Overcharge must-fly business travelers for seats they otherwise sell at give-away prices to discretionary leisure flyers. The overall effect, however, is to make every traveler skeptical and cynical about the actual cost of flying.

This awful state of affairs could be remedied with one simple federal regulation: Require airlines to sell all fares on a one-way basis. That would immediately level the playing field for travelers and force airlines to price rationally and build a simple, easy-to-buy, easy-to-understand fare structure. Not only would travelers benefit--business flyers would pay less and fly more and vacationers would fly more frequently on impulse--but so would the airlines. One-way pricing would allow them to cut billions in cost out of their bloated revenue-management, pricing and inventory-distribution departments.

It is a startling reality: The government mandates minimum space standards for shipping cattle and other livestock, but the airlines are free to fly coach passengers in appallingly tight and unhealthy circumstances. The industry-standard 31 inches of seat pitch is bad enough, but some airlines have aircraft that offer just 30 inches of legroom. Add the confined cabin space of the ubiquitous 37-to-50-seat regional jets and you have a nation of flyers wedged into space that isn't fit for cattle.

The solution is simple: Require airlines to offer at least 34 inches of legroom at every seat. Thirty-four inches isn't lavish, but it is fair.

On any given day, the nation's largest airports are overscheduled by about 20 percent. And when you start with a system that guarantees that one in five flights can never operate on time, you have chaos when a storm--or even a sprinkle--rolls in. Even one overscheduled airport is a nightmare. Several years ago, the government removed slot controls at New York's LaGuardia Airport. Although the airport can only handle about 75 planes an hour, airlines began scheduling almost twice that many flights during peak hours. The result? A systemwide cascade, with LaGuardia alone responsible for 25 percent of all the delays in the nation.

Logic dictates--and the law should require--that airlines only be allowed to fly as many flights to and from an airport that the facility can actually handle. The Federal Aviation Administration knows exactly how many flights can operate at any given hour at every airport in this country. No airline should be allowed to schedule even one more flight than an airport can handle.

Let's be honest: Even if we forced airlines to schedule properly, fly passengers in relative comfort and use a rational pricing system, life on the road would still stink. Why? The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) assumes that we are guilty of terrorism until we can prove to a screener that we are innocent.

Just one ludicrous example: Richard Reid attempted to ignite a shoe bomb on a US-bound aircraft in December, 2001. Now we all remove our shoes at the security checkpoint. Do you know how many passengers have flown in the years since Reid couldn't explode his PF Flyers? More than 3 billion. Know how many shoe bombs the TSA has found since the Reid incident? None. In other words, under the guise of protecting us from terrorism, the TSA is pursuing a 3-billion-to-1 shot and we're all hopping around shoeless at the security checkpoint.

There's a better way to manage security. Require the TSA to assume that we are innocent until there is some scintilla of evidence that we might be guilty. Instead of making us all remove our shoes, segregate our liquids, strip off our outer garments and separate our laptops from their cases, let us pass through security with whatever we carry and whatever we wear. If the screener doesn't like what pops up on the X-ray machine monitors or if we set off a security alarm--or even if the screener doesn't like the color of our overcoat--pull us aside and give us a secondary screening. Give us the third degree. But the rest of us should be allowed to pass in peace and without being subject to the TSA's needle-in-the-haystack fetish.

Now I know what you're saying: All of this would make our lives on the road better, but none of it would stop the airlines from holding us prisoners for hours on a runway now and again.

True enough. But I'd rather round up the usual suspects--the stupid fares, the miserable seats, the phony schedules and a TSA run amok--than waste time campaigning for a passenger's bill of rights that won't amount to a hill o' beans in this crazy world.

As I Was Saying…
The last time a passenger's bill of rights bounced around Washington, the nation's airlines bought off Congress with voluntary Customer First plans. As my column of September 23, 1999, pointed out, the voluntary plans were a "remarkable collection of the unenforceable, the unimaginative, the implausible, the impossibly vague, the illogical, the insensitive and the previously mandated." The plans have never been heard from again.

Copyright © 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.