EDITORIAL: High time to re-regulate U.S. airlines

A friend who knows of my passion for travel came up to me last night and said, "Hey! Did you hear? Spirit Airlines has discontinued its toll-free reservations number!" Turns out, they did that two years ago - in May 2013 - but his shocked attitude is an indication of how fed up people are with the state of air travel and U.S. airlines today.

I say it is well past time to re-regulate those airlines.

The airlines have argued -- and will continue to argue -- that theirs is the most regulated of any "unregulated" industry. That may be true, but I firmly believe it needs to be regulated even more tightly.

Several news outlets have editorialized in favor of such a move over the past few years, including USA Today. "Consumer Traveler" Christopher Elliot followed up his 2008 opinion piece on the topic with a similar article on the MSNBC web site. They and others have made the case that the airlines had more profitable years under the regulation of the former Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) than under deregulation and, while not advocating a return to complete government control as under the CAB, there are many things the government could do to bring some reason and rationality to the industry.

In 2013, the National Consumers League published a report examining what it termed “the troubling correlation between rising cancellation/change fees, the high cost of refundable tickets and the misleading marketing of travel insurance products.” Among the recommendations in the report was a call for Congressional oversight hearings to examine these issues.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller
In 2014, Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation,opened an inquiry into the role “ancillary fees” play in the business models of U.S. carriers and sought specific information about the revenue generated in 11 different categories including checked baggage, fees for flight changes, priority seats and priority boarding, among others.

Earlier this year, a study showed that income from ancillary fees jumped 21 percent in 2014 from the year before. “Ancillary revenue” is the industry term for revenue from non-ticket sources including à la carte fees like baggage charges, the sale of frequent flier miles, commissions on travel-oriented services and other items. Read TheTravelPro post about the study here.

To date, none of these actions seem to have made much of a difference, and that needs to change.

From my perspective, I believe it is the absence of sufficient regulation that allows airlines to cram more and more of us into seats that are too narrow and too close to the seats in front of them. (Forget about working on your laptop while jammed into a coach seat!) It is the absence of regulation that allows airlines to charge for checking a bag, then arbitrarily reduce the size of what is considered "regulation" carry-on luggage. It is the absence of regulation that allows Spirit to charge for both checked bags and carry-on bags. How many travelers fly without some sort of luggage?

I have written my two Senators and Representative as well as others, urging re-regulation. Those who feel similarly have my permission to use the letter that follows, either as-is or as a starting point for their own communiqués.

Dear Senator or Representative:

My recent air travels have convinced me that the only way to make our nation’s airlines more responsive to the needs of its customers is to re-regulate the airline industry.

This industry is perfectly willing to inconvenience its passengers by selling more seats than are actually available, by employing a pricing structure that is nearly impossible for the average person to sort out, by canceling flights or changing flight schedules by several hours without explanation or without notifying passengers, and by cramming more of us into ever-smaller seats. At the same time, this industry constantly invents new ways to wring every possible dollar from its customers through fees for everything from checked bags to paying extra for certain “select” seats.

While I am not asking for a return to the complete control of fares, routes, etc., exercised by the Civil Aeronautics Board, there are many things that should be more closely regulated for the benefit of the traveling public.

Airlines should be required to:

  • Offer one price for all seats in each class (coach, business, first) up to perhaps 14 days before the flight, at which time they could raise the fare because of the “last-minute” nature of the purchase. Even then, however, prices should be consistent across each class.
  • Check one piece of luggage per passenger without charge. Structuring the cost of the ticket properly should make this a simple matter.
  • Put enough people on their counters to keep check-in times to 15 minutes or less.
  • Provide seats with a pitch not less than 33”, and no less than 18.5” wide. We Americans are getting larger (our own fault, granted), but airlines are making the seats smaller. Squeezing passengers into seats 17” wide verges on cruel and unusual punishment.
  • Airlines should be prohibited from using regional jets on flights longer than 1-1/2 hours in duration. Flights longer than that aren’t “regional” anymore.
  • “Change fees” should be limited at a very low level of perhaps $25. Considering all factors, including the level of computerization and the low wages paid to airline employees, claiming it costs the airline anywhere near the fees they charge to change a ticket is simply unsupportable.
These are just for starters.

Other travelers will have their own list of things airlines “must” and “should never” do. I’m certain you could quickly compile an extensive list by asking your fellow fliers (or guests at the bar at virtually any decent business hotel) a few simple questions: What irritates you most about flying? What would you like to see the airlines required to do? And, What would you like to see the airlines prohibited from doing?

Thank you for reading this and giving the matter serious consideration.

If you agree, write your elected officials. If not, be prepared to keep paying more and getting less for your air travel dollars.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.