There are some government regulations that just seem, to people of all political stripes, to just plain make common sense. Keeping rat hair out of our food supply? Making sure our medication is actually medication, rather than dog urine in a drop pouch? Making sure our airline pilots are qualified to fly the planes and, if the situation warrants, ditch them in the Hudson successfully? No matter how orthodox a free-marketeer one is, it’s hard to argue with these.
And when big, bad, arrogant airlines make victims passengers sit on the tarmac for hours and hours, waiting for takeoff permissions that due to our overcrowded airports and snarled air traffic control system might never come, or at least may be very very tardy, as infants start to squall and toilets back up and flight crews have to change due to (yet more) government regulations? These incidents – which garner all sorts of news coverage when they happen – are utterly infuriating to hear about; the most hardeded free-marketeer can imagine the smell, the sounds, the claustrophobia, and the sense that one is nothing but a particle in a badly-managed industrial stream.
Well, who could possibly argue with banning the practice?
We’ll come back to that. But remember: all government actions have unintended consequences. Often, especially with regulations that seem moderately innocuous on the surface, the unintended consequences are problems that are far worse than the one the regulation was originally intended to deal with.
“Penigma”, blogging at “Penigma”, notes that the Obama Administration is proposing new rules requiring airlines to deplane passengers after a three-hour wait.
This post could be several hundred pages,
[Those of you who know Penigma’s history as a commenter know – he’s not exaggerating. Ed]
but I’ll try to keep it down to about four paragraphs.
[It came to nine – Ed.]
Two days ago, the FAA under the Obama Administration mandated that should anyone be stuck on a plane more than two hours, they must be given food and water, and the lavatories on the plane must be operable and available. If they are stuck more than three hours, that the plane must return to the gate and off-load the passengers. Between Jan 2009 and June 2009, there were 631 incidents of planes sitting on the tarmack [sic] for more than three hours, so any of us who travel often deeply appreciate the change and probably even say, “FINALLY!” to the idea that this was a long-needed redress of an abusive and aggregeious [sic] practice by the airlines.
As someone who gets a little claustrophobic on planes (I’m 6’5, and planes these days are not built to be even remotely comfortable for anyone over a relatively lilliputian 6’0), I’ll testify; waiting on the runway sucks. And the longest I’ve had to sit was probably 90 minutes, coming back from New York last year.
But remember that number and the process behind it; last year, the proposed rule would have required 631 planes to return to the terminal and deplane.
Penigma doesn’t mention that this rule is accompanied by big fines.
The reaction from the airlines was typical. One commented that this ran counter to the idea of getting the most flights completed, which was the ‘goal’ the commenter said they were required to meet.
Now, I’m not sure why Penigma opted to put scare quotes around “goal”; flight completion is a pretty vital metric for airlines. And once an airliner pushes away from the boarding gate, it’s considered to be on its way; returning to the terminal is a complex process that involves a lot more than just marching people off the plane back to the terminal; at busy airports, boarding gates are tightly scheduled; the luggage will need to be taken off the plane and held somewhere, and probably sorted according to whatever plan emerges to get the passengers to their destinations. It’s a lot of work. But it’s a huge problem.
We’ll come back to that shortly.
So here’s the point – Obama acted in my opinion where Bush and the Republicans would not have.
Penigma being a clairvoyant, perhaps he should start predicting stock markets on his blog.
Bush would have made platitudes about letting the market correct the problem and that any ‘regulation’ here was overkill and unnecessary – as he so frequently did on a myriad of issues.
Well, yes. And for good reason.
Because as it happens economist John Lott also commented on the issue. And yes, Lott is a bit of a free-marketeer:
It seems like such an obvious regulation right? It is important to note first that airlines have a strong incentive to get things right to begin with. If they keep people a long time on the tarmac, people won’t fly their airlines again.
It’s no secret; airlines that develop bad reputations start to shed passengers; I know that on the rare occasions when I fly at all (anything less than a ten-hour drive is actually better spent in the car, unless someone else is paying me to make the flight), I actively eschew airlines with awful reputations (you hear me knocking, NWA?) for leaving planes on the runway.
But since Lott’s an economist, let’s talk numbers:
This year through Oct. 31, there were 864 flights with taxi out times of three hours or more, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Transportation officials, using 2007 and 2008 data, said there are an average of 1,500 domestic flights a year carrying about 114,000 passengers that are delayed more than three hours. . . .”
That is an annual rate of 1,037 flights this year. For 2007 and 2008, it is an average of 822.5 million passengers and 10.94 million flights. So that is 0.01 percent of passengers were on flights delayed by more than three hours and 0.01 percent of flights.
In other words, one out of 10,000 passengers and flights are ever delayed by three hours or longer.
So what happens (I’ll add emphasis)?
Given the huge fines per passenger, airlines won’t even put people on planes if there is a chance that the plane won’t take off soon. Zero tolerance rules also make about as much sense here as they do for schools or anything else.
Given the fines involved, it’s entirely likely the airlines will play it “better safe than sorry”, and not only scrub flights that are getting close to the three-hour limit, but flights that have any risk at all of going over the limit. Weather closing in on O’Hare? Scrub all connecting flights! Blizzard approaching Denver? Scrub every flight that will connect through DIA!
Instead of one in 10,000 passengers waiting on tarmacs for three hours or more (as galling as that is), you’ll have many, many times that number stuck in terminals trying to find connections, while the airlines quite sensibly protect themselves from huge fines.
Passengers value getting to their destinations and they also value not being stuck on planes, but who is best to make those decisions? The customers or the government? It is also costly to return passengers to the terminal and remove baggage from the planes before the three hours are up. If airlines make the wrong decisions, what do you think will happen to whether passengers are willing to take their planes. If this is a significant problem, should airlines be competing against each other for passengers based on this issue? The rules will make the airlines more risk averse than passengers want them to be. One clear implication is that this will raise the price of air travel.
But then, in the era of Hope and Change, we must ALL be happy to pay more.
Information, as usual, would make the market work better…:
There are probably a range of responses that different airlines will take on their own. If you are in first class, you probably get served a lot even when you are on the tarmac. Some airlines will serve passengers in coach more than others. Those services cost something and passengers can pick the airlines that they want based upon price and whether they are willing to save a few dollars and take that additional risk. People can bring water bottles on the plane with them if they would rather save a few dollars and do it that way.
Lott also notes that the Feds are framing this to the airlines in the form of “an offer they can’t refuse”..:
What bothered me was a report that the transportation department warned airlines not to appeal the decision.
Fortunately for the travelling public (those that will be able to afford to fly at all), America’s air terminals are places of scenic wonder, where one can meditate. Think “my flight got scrubbed for the greater good. My flight got scrubbed for the greater good”.