Time to cut burdensome airline regulations? Or add some more?


The Wall Street Journal reports that Airlines for America, the lobbying organization for airlines, has asked the Department of Transportation to end some popular airline rules.

Donald Trump is all about cutting regulations, which is why his DOT asked the airlines what to cut. Any business owner will tell you that regulations are a pain in the ass. But we are all consumers, as well, and regulators created these rules to help us. Since a lot of my readers are frequent travelers, how about if you decide. Here’s a list of the regulations that the Journal reports the airline industry would like to get rid of. Which ones would you scrap?

  • Tarmac delay rule: airlines pay a fine if they strand you on the tarmac for more than three hours. Airlines must provide adequate food and water if passengers are delayed on tarmac more than two hours, and must maintain operable lavatories.
  • When you’re shopping for tickets, airlines must show the full price of a ticket, including fees like a “fuel” fee and taxes.
  • If you buy a ticket, you have 24 hours to cancel it without a penalty or change fee. For example, this applies if you click on the wrong date by mistake.
  • If an airline quotes you a very low fare because of a technical error, (a “mistake fare”), they must honor it.
  • Airlines must provide “prompt” wheelchair service to people who need it, for free.
  • Online booking systems must show historical on-time and cancellation history for those flights.
  • Airlines can’t pay to have their flights appear more prominently or above others in booking systems.
  • Airlines can’t bump passengers off flights to make room for passengers willing to pay more.
  • If you get bumped off a flight because the airline overbooked, they must compensate you.
  • Airlines must seat families together.
  • Airlines must refund your bag fees if they lose or delay your luggage.

Cutting the wrong rules?

After you’ve chosen which of these rules to retain and which the industry can get rid of, I’d like to suggest some other changes that, so far as I know, the industry organization has not requested.

  • Flight attendants are no longer required to explain how seat-belts work, what to do in the unlikely event of a water landing, or that there are infant life rafts.
  • Passengers seated within six feet of babies receive free noise cancelling headphones.
  • All seats on the left side of a flight will recline; all those on the right side of the flight will not. Passengers can choose which side they want based on their preference.
  • People over six feet tall receive preference for seating in exit rows.
  • First class and business class passengers board last (but no one else is allowed to use their bin space), since they will have the most comfortable flight.
  • Airlines must rename frequent-flyer categories that rarely deliver actual privileges. For example, American Airlines Gold will be renamed Zinc and OneWorld Emerald will be renamed Rhinestone.
  • Anyone traveling with an emotional-support animal must buy a seat for the animal and travel in the last five rows of coach.
  • Flight attendants can wear blue jeans, so long as they are not torn or stained.
  • All middle seat customers are, by regulation, entitled to both armrests.
  • Wi-Fi “service” that does not consistently deliver at least 10 Mbit/second during the flight is free.
  • Flight attendants must be supplied with Febreze and instructed to use it on lavatories and passengers that stink.
  • Reservation systems must show seats mounted less than 30 inches from the seat ahead of them in flashing red with a warning on reservation systems.
  • At security, no one must take off their shoes or jackets and liquids, gels, and aerosols are now permitted in any quantity. Free the toothpaste.
  • All airline entertainment systems must offer “Airport,” “Airplane,” and “Snakes on a Plane” as possible movie choices.

Why regulations exist

In theory, airlines could compete on customer experience. The free market philosophy says that if you allow competition to take place, some suppliers will differentiate on price, and others on quality.

This has happened in only a limited way in the airline industry. I, for one, am glad there are regulations regarding safety inspections, for example — I don’t want to choose an airline based on whether it’s safe. And because there are so few airlines competing on these routes, there’s a race to the bottom on price, quality, legroom, and so on. So I want regulations that keep that “bottom” from going any lower. I don’t want seat pitch to get any tighter, nor do I want to sit on the tarmac for ten hours or get bumped at the last minute because somebody paid more.

Where to draw the line is a difficult challenge. It’s fine to argue about it. But I’m glad there is a line to draw.

(Please add any regulations you think belong in my list.)

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  1. Airlines must show seat pitch on all cabin diagrams (and before the customer) has paid. If an equipment change puts customers on a plane with less legroom, passengers must be refunded any fees paid for extra legroom.

  2. Josh,

    From your favorite travel industry analyst…

    I’m alarmed that the DOT is even considering some of these proposed changes to airline regulations. Airlines have repeatedly proven the “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” cliche. As consumers, we should all be concerned. Here’s why:
    – Eliminating or shortening the 24-hour “grace period” for consumers to get a refund. I don’t know about you, but I have made mistakes booking flights online. I’ve also had trips go from “confirmed” to “cancelled” within a few hours of booking flights. Several years ago, airlines received government permission to change from letting a traveler “hold” a reservation for up to 24 hours without paying, to making passengers pay for the booking and then giving them the refund if the reservation was cancelled. I think that’s fair. The current situation isn’t broken. It doesn’t require, or deserve, any further changes.
    – Relaxing/eliminating enforcement of the three-hour “tarmac rule.” This rule prohibits airlines from allowing a flight to spend more than three hours waiting to take off after departing its gate. It’s a result of when a Northwest Airlines flight spent 10 hours waiting in line to take take off from Detroit several years ago. Is there room for possible “common sense” adjustments? Possibly. One scenario: When an aircraft is *extremely* close to being able to take off (e.g., maybe third in line but the line is moving).
    – Allowing airlines to show only the “base fare,” without including mandatory taxes/fees. Airlines and its lobbying group argue that this discriminates against airlines, claiming that in the US, retailers, restaurants, and many other consumer service industries don’t have to show their prices inclusive of tax. But in most cases, when we’re buying something at a store, we know what our local sales tax is — and there’s just one tax. With airlines, there is a labyrinth of various Federal taxes and fees — the Federal ticket tax, the 9/11 security fee, airport-levied passenger facility charges, and more. A chief concern I have are mandatory airline-imposed fees, namely fuel surcharges, which in some cases can add hundreds of dollars to a fare. Case in point: I recently shopped British Airways for a San Francisco-London round-trip on behalf of a friend. The economy “base fare ” was approximately $499 round-trip. However, there were approximately $219 in various US and UK mandatory taxes and fees on top of that, PLUS a $300 BA-imposed fuel surcharge. How do you think my friend would have reacted when I told her the fare was $499, when in reality shed have had to pay more than $900 with the various mandatory taxes and fees?
    – Not showing on-time performance (OTP). Airlines are, fundamentally, time-management tools. How would you like it if you went to buy a tech device and the manufacturer didn’t provide you with its core operating specs? Allowing airlines to eliminate OTP results is the same thing. We’re paying for a product; we have every right to know whether that product will perform as we expect.
    – Honoring “mistake” fares. Several months ago, a supermarket in San Francisco, where I live, mispriced Dover Sole, charging $19.99/pound rather than $39.99. Did I buy some? You bet, as did many others. Did a cashier or store manager run after me as I exited to try to collect the additional money, or insist I give them back the fish? No. There are “checks and balances” in airline pricing software systems that are designed to reduce these types of “mistake fares” form being filed. No one is perfect, though. If an airline makes a mistake, they should honor it. If the airline makes intelligent use of its customer data, it could even reach out to passengers who benefited from the mistake fare, and encourage them to post about the great deal they got on social media.
    – Bumping passengers by fare value. Paging Dr. Dao, will Dr. David Dao please come to the nearest United Airlines courtesy phone… There are some smart new airline tech start-ups, including Avisell, which allow airlines to proactively identify flights at risk of overbooking and then reach out passengers with targeted offers to get them to voluntarily change their flights in exchange for compensation. Why turn to regulation when technology can help solve this problem — and spare airlines more PR black eyes?
    – Compensating bumped passengers. When I go to a restaurant with a reservation, and the restaurant isn’t able to seat me for a significant time, the manager will generally offer my party beverages and/or appetizers to help compensate for the delay. If I buy a ticket for a flight, and the airline involuntarily tells me I can’t use the reservation I have paid for, I should be compensated as well. Absent this, airlines have reduced incentive to honor our reservations. In the EU, there is Flight Compensation Regulation 261/2004, a policy which specifies compensation due passengers for denied boarding. Airlines should be grateful we don’t have that in the US, and call it a day.
    – Not seating families together, and not refunding checked bag fees when bags are delayed/lost. Really? This is why it should be mandatory for every airline to have a Vice President of Common Sense. It’s one thing to charge adult passengers for seat assignments, but when the parents are traveling with children under a certain age, there should be no question about seating the kids adjacent to at least one parent without an additional fee (PS: JetBlue doesn’t charge for seat assignments). As for refunding bag fees, in any other industry, if a product didn’t perform as expected, the seller would refund the price or replace the product. Airlines shouldn’t be exempted from this common-sense business practice.
    – Complimentary wheelchair service. What does it say about an industry when it wants to charge grandma for a wheelchair?

    Is there any policy change that doesn’t make me see red? Yes. Allowing airlines to bias displays in the Global Distribution Systems (GDS) that travel agencies use to book airline reservations for their clients. Why? Because the agencies themselves already use software apps from the GDS operators and others to bias the displays to *their* agents and online customers.

    PS: I suspect your bullet about not having to conduct the safety demonstration is tongue-in-cheek, but Tuesday’s incident aboard a United Airlines jet that lost part of an engine cowling en route to Honolulu shows why safety demos remain necessary. Now, if only airlines would focus on making them as brief as possible…

    1. Henry says it best. All of those regulations simply put what I would call a “minimum” bar of customer service burden on the airlines. Any airline that would want to drop any of those regulations should get out of the business altogether. I find it incredulous they would even ask for any of those to be lifted. How crass and uncaring can one industry be?

    2. I’m with Henry, too. I don’t think any of the regulations should be scrapped. Flying can already be a horrific experience, and now the airlines want to make it worse and continue to nickel and dime us.

      Just booked a flight on British Airways to Europe and found out that we can’t choose seats until 24 hours before the flight–unless we pay a $50/person/leg fee. For a family of four that’s an additional $800 to have the peace of mind that a family with young-ish children will sit together and not scramble at the last minute (and get scattered middle seats, most likely). Hopefully, we’ll be taken care of at the desk at the airport and we all wind up together. I’m not hopeful.

  3. Josh – I think airlines should be allowed to race each other to the runway or to the gate. None of this forming an orderly queue and accepting being eighth in line for departure. Edge forward. Get a wing in front.

    It works fine when everyone tries to get out of a car park at the same time so what could possibly go wrong?