The festering issue of whether to enact a Passenger Bill of Rights is on its most aggressive track, both publicly and in Congress. Last week the Senate Commerce Committee approved its version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill. Tucked inside was the Boxer-Snowe amendment, which resurrects the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights nearly two years after it first reared its ugly head on Capitol Hill.
Among other things, the Boxer-Snowe version requires airlines to let passengers off of an aircraft that is delayed on the tarmac for three hours or more.
I ask, is this really a cause for Congress? Is this “issue” worthy of all the angst we see in articles like in the USA Today, which is to my eye drafted to drum up controversy replete with anecdotes and devoid of the relationship to the sheer number of flights consumers enjoy.
It is anecdotal and emotion driven by a populist appeal that seems to be driving this debate. With the airline industry already in fierce competition for customers and revenue, my bet is that the industry is more than capable of addressing this issue on its own as evidenced in the recent focus on operational results. But Congress too often seeks a legislative solution where the private sector should prevail, as we’ve seen before and will unfortunately see again. And in these cases, it is clear that the law of unintended consequences is alive and well.
At MIT, I am fortunate to work with learned academics and industry experts who produce a volume of impressive research on airline operations and performance and schedule recovery. Among it is some interesting data that shows airline schedule planning may actually propagate the kind of air travel delays that has some in Congress pushing bills that very likely will add to, and not ameliorate the problem.
Professor Amy Cohn of the University of Michigan is a Sloan Industry Studies Fellow researching the passenger airline industry. Her research illustrates that plans that look good on paper often do not perform well in practice. Cohn argues that, with the complex nature of airline networks, a little “slack” built into the schedule actually improves performance – but offsets the benefits of system optimization. Much good work has been done to make this capital and labor intensive industry as efficient as it can be, particularly given the many variables that affect performance – from a crew member calling in sick, to a mechanical problem, to a geopolitical event, or to the weather.
Consumer Benefits of Airline Schedules Have Been Significant
Schedule planning has provided a wide range of benefits – primarily for consumers. Over the past 20 years, passengers have seen connecting times fall significantly – which is particularly important to those who do not live in hub cities and face a combination of flights to get to their desired destinations. This opaque airline practice has resulted in more productive time for the airline passenger. It has helped to make airlines significantly more efficient because time saved on the ground translates into money saved for the airline. These cost savings have also been passed along to consumers in the form of lower fares
In addition, schedule optimization has permitted added frequencies to non-stop destinations, providing consumers a wider array of departure times and, in some instances, a wider choice in carriers and hubs.
All Anecdotes, Few Facts and Little Analysis
Federal legislation like the Passenger Bill of Rights proposal could significantly undo the progress the airline industry has made. And the real shame is that the legislation borne of one unfortunate delay and an angry but media darling passenger activist named Kate Hanni is the product of anecdotal, and often unsubstantiated evidence rather than serious analysis. Anecdotes produce sensationalist stories like the one in the USA Today. But real research tells a different story. According to the Air Transport Association and the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, all but one of the airline efficiency metrics are at their best levels since 2000, including flight cancellations as a percent of domestic departures, on- time arrival rates, mishandled bags, customer complaints, and taxi-out times in excess of three hours.
So why the focus on an arbitrary three hour time limit? Why not two hours? Why not three hours and 17 minutes? As it is, the legislation now in Congress is designed to affect no more than .014 (1q’09 according to ATA) percent of domestic passengers. Of that small subset of passengers, who, if anyone will actually benefit from the legislation? Well that depends on how many of those passengers would rather wait a little while more in hopes of getting clearance to take off, and how many would prefer to return to the gate and call it a night and risk the ultimate arrival. Now I will add that in order to wait out a delay, there is a rightful expectation of a fully functioning aircraft and onboard amenities that allow a bearable experience.
The truth is, you can’t legislate smooth travel conditions. Weather is a reality and weather causes delays. And yes, delays add to the angst of travel and wets the appetites of those in the media that thrive on the travails of travel. In those cases of severe weather and flight irregularities, some fliers may be happy just to wait out the delay if it means getting to their destination. A return to the terminal, after all, just adds to the chaos for later flights as the airline struggles to get crews on planes and passengers on their way. And the issues propagate. Imagine the mood on a plane queued to take off following a weather delay if the pilot suddenly announces that they are headed back to the terminal because Congress says they have to. Whose “rights” does that protect?
What Does This Have to Do With Reauthorization?
Of the .014 percent, or the .01 percent of domestic departures during the first quarter of 2009, of domestic passengers impacted by tarmac delays greater than three hours, shouldn’t we also be asking how many of those delays could possibly be laid at the feet of Congress and the government because they did not keep their promise of upgrading the air traffic control system? That’s a legislative solution that would benefit all airline passengers, every community and the industry itself. Whereas the USA Today article was largely sensationalistic with its statistical story and included vignettes about crying babies and the like, at least the reporter talked to an airline and a knowledgeable consultant about the old and inefficient air traffic control system.
The USA Today article rightly makes this case. "Because of the antiquated air-traffic-control system in which we — and every airline — operate, we're restricted as to the operational improvements we can make," Bryan Baldwin, spokesman for JetBlue Airways, told the newspaper
Aviation consultant Michael Boyd said airline CEOs "should form a conga line" to the FAA and demand the country's air-traffic system be modernized. That could increase airspace capacity and reduce the number of waiting planes.
That alone would do far more to reduce congestion and delay than would a phony and likely counterproductive passenger “bill of rights.”
Don’t get me wrong. The airlines deserve some blame here. We would not be facing the prospect of such a ludicrous proposal if the airlines did not fail their passengers and fail them more than once. But remember, they do operate nearly seven million flights per year - significantly more than when competition was born. Their failures pale in comparison. Passengers could, and have, experience serious repercussions from a prolonged wait on the tarmac – whether from lack of food, water, medicine or simply the need to get off the plane and attend to personal matters. But that is an issue that can be solved with a directive, a renewed focus on customer service and basic human comforts, not a piece of legislation that certainly will result in unintended consequences. Airlines and airports are making progress on that front and addressing delays that they can control. But last I checked, weather was not among them.
This issue needs study – a very detailed study – and it sure as hell is not the 2008 ARC study - on the issues . There is a solid foundation of scholarly work to build on and adapt that work to this particular issue. Those that perform the study need to understand how airline operations work and then determine how an airline can best address the anecdotes (outlier events) given the unique constraints placed on airlines, airports and the air traffic system each and every day as there is no one size fits all solution that seems to be called for in the ill advised Boxer-Snowe legislation.
The real issue is in the root cause of airline delays, and the answer will be found to incubate in the air traffic control system. The FAA reauthorization bill comes around only once every so many years. Is Congress going to use this opportunity to pass a meaningless “protection” for a few passengers, or take a bold step and do what it takes to build a better air traffic control system for the good of all?
I thought the administration was going to take parochial interests out of legislation. This legislation should be about funding the FAA in order to modernize the air traffic system and increase its safety – not tarmac delays; not propping up a non-essential Essential Air Service program; and certainly not about anti-trust immunity.
More to come on these issues.