RE-REGULATE? I DON'T THINK SO...
By Joe Brancatelli
July 12, 2007 -- We are three weeks into the summer and my E-mail is running 50-50. Half of you want to vent about your hideous summer travel experiences. And half of you are looking to re-regulate the airlines and turn our business-travel lives over to the whims of a governmental agency.
Actually, I can't think of a more telling indictment: You hate the airlines so much that even the prospect of another government regulatory body seems palatable. Still, logic indicates that re-regulating the airlines won't help because the bureaucrats are dumber than the self-aggrandizing fools who run the Big Six airlines.
Want to know how I know this? The Department of Transportation (DOT) conveniently served up proof this week.
On Monday, the DOT roused itself from its summer slumber to say that it was ready to take action on one of the great crises of our time: denied boarding. After nearly 30 years of capping the compensation you receive when an airline involuntarily "bumps" you, the DOT thinks now is the time to consider increasing the payment to as high as $1,248 from its current $200 or $400.
No matter that the nation's airlines are sliding dangerously close to the 60 percent on-time level or that the Big Six are "mishandling" record numbers of checked bags. No matter that FlightStats.com says that flight cancellations surged 43 percent in June compared to a year ago.
The DOT is stepping up to make life easier for the 1.45 passengers in 10,000 who are told they can't fly. Somewhere, in some dark and dreary corridor of DOT headquarters in steamy, fetid Washington, this passes as good and engaged government. Protect the needle in the haystack while the barn burns down.
What is even more hilarious about this tomfoolery is that the DOT isn't prepared to seriously address the denied-boarding issue. The DOT's current compensation guidelines only cover passengers denied boarding on flights carrying at least 61 travelers. But perhaps 40 percent of the Big Six' flights now operate with 37- or 50-seat regional jets. Yet the DOT made no proposal to extend its "protection" to the huge population of regional-jet flyers. All it did Monday was ask for "comment" about its current policy of washing its bureaucratic hands of travelers forced to fly on regional jets.
Are these really the people you want regulating the airlines?
Want more proof? Fair enough. As everyone on the business-travel planet knows, Northwest Airlines cancelled more than 1,200 flights toward the end of June when management incompetence left it with too few pilots to staff its scheduled flights. Desperate to avoid the harsh media scrutiny that a wave of late July cancellations would inevitably bring, Northwest is exploiting a loophole in DOT rules.
For reasons known only to bureaucrats, any flight cancelled more than seven days before departure is not counted against an airline's cancellation rate in the DOT's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. So Northwest is pre-canceling hundreds (perhaps thousands) of flights in July, making sure to do it eight days or more before departure. That will assumedly allow Northwest to avoid a noticeable late-July meltdown and duck the attendant negative media coverage. And it is all legal, up to DOT snuff.
Again I ask: Are these really the people that you want extending their bureaucratic reach over the airlines and our business-travel lives?
But wait, there's more, as they say on TV. Let's consider the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA was created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to federalize security at the nation's airports. I was an enthusiastic supporter of the federalization of security checkpoints--anything would be better than staffing them with $6-an-hour fry cooks masquerading as airport rent-a-cops, I reasoned--so I have no trouble saying that the TSA is a dreadful failure. We're not safer at the airport since the arrival of the TSA, just more constrained by inexplicable rules and inconsistent enforcement.
Before you call for a re-regulation of the airlines, just think of the TSA. There's no reason to assume that a DOT bulked up to take on the task of re-regulation would be any more efficient than the TSA.
And that brings us to Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the bureaucratic wasteland that includes the TSA. Chertoff told the Chicago Tribune this week that he had a "gut feeling" that al-Qaeda was gearing up for an attack on the United States this summer.
Let's forget for a moment that we are mired in Iraq partially because President Bush says we need to fight terrorists over there so we don't fight have to fight them over here. Let's even forget that there were no al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq until we invaded.
No, my question is more simple: Why are we relying on Chertoff's gastrointestinal rumblings about a topic as vital as a new terrorist attack on the United States?
Is it because Chertoff has yet to fill 138 vacancies among Homeland Security's top 575 positions? Is he going with his gut because he hasn't bothered to fill a quarter of the key jobs inside his agency and thus has precious few analysts to fall back on?
No, fellow travelers, re-regulation is not the answer. The government isn't capable of making airlines toe the line. The bureaucrats don't get it. They never have.
The power to force the Big Six to clean up their acts rests firm with us. And we have the big stick, too. It's called our wallets.
Keep them closed and deny your business to carriers that treat you badly and you'll see how fast they reform--or disappear.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
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This column is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.