ATW Editor's Blog

How US aviation legislation could hurt, not help airline passengers

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US legislators seem intent of late on meddling in how airlines are run. Not how airlines operate safely, but how they deliver their basic product offerings. But their meddling could backfire.

Lawmakers want to determine minimum seat size and pitch, the square footage of lavatory space, and the amount that can be charged to change a non-refundable ticket.

Various efforts were made to tag these regulatory interferences to the new FAA reauthorization bill. Some failed, but others succeeded. On seat size, for instance, FAA is now tasked with defining a safe minimum. But “safe” is not necessarily the same as “comfortable”. All commercial airliners that operate in the US have been FAA certified as operationally safe, including meeting emergency evacuation times regardless of seat density. Congress is effectively asking for those regulatory oversights to be duplicated. And here’s how this might backfire: What happens if a “safe” pitch is determined to be tighter than even the shortest pitch that some US LCCs currently use? Would that lead to the insertion of an extra row of seats?

But let’s say the review determines a “safe” minimum pitch to be 30 inches, which would be one or two inches longer than some airlines currently operate. Then LCCs such as Spirit and Frontier could be forced to remove seats and, of course, would need to increase fares to compensate for the lost revenue. Given that it’s the LCCs that have largely driven down general airfares, forcing the majors to match prices and create their own “basic economy” fares to remain competitive, the likely outcome would be that the legacy majors would then also raise their ticket prices. So that’s the other potential for a backfire: Lawmakers would be responsible, in the long run, for raising fares.

Meanwhile, non-US carriers could be at a competitive advantage if they keep their denser cabin configurations.

Another example of misguided and wasteful interference is the provision that Congress latched to the reauthorization bill that requires the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to set up a consumer advocate.

DOT does not want this addition and for good reason: it already has an entire division dedicated to aviation consumer protection. The analysts in that unit talk to consumers, handle complaints and compile detailed reports on key airline service metrics, such as how often flights run late and bags are mishandled. DOT told the Commerce Committee that the post it wanted to create would be “unnecessary, counterproductive and would result in an increase in cost with no benefit.”

Yet Congress plowed on and DOT is now required to set up a watchdog within its watchdog division.

Legislators need to do their homework—and airlines need to educate them—before their “consumer help” turns the dial back to a regulated industry in which only the wealthy and the privileged fly. But given that most lawmakers see themselves as privileged, perhaps that’s their true endgame.

Karen Walker karen.walker@informa.com

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