Enforcing consumer protections is not regulation

by Charlie Leocha on November 26, 2008

Over the past few weeks, travel commentators have been beating the “airline regulation” drum. However, let’s be careful throwing the regulation word around. Most travelers are actually looking for basic consumer protections, not re-regulation.

Deregulation has been an amazing success. Without deregulation, we would not have Southwest Airlines or JetBlue. Without deregulation, many smaller airports would have never been opened to scheduled airline service. Without deregulation, low cost carriers would not have changed the landscape in Europe for vacationers and businessmen, not to mention destinations that have seen rising numbers of tourists.

Back in 2005 Daniel W. Drezner blogged about deregulation.

Since federal restrictions on routes and fares were removed, consumers have been saving $20 billion a year on air fares, when adjusted for inflation, according to Brookings. Fares have dropped by more than 30 percent, on average, and as much as 70 percent when tickets are bought in advance, the group concluded.

At the same time, airlines have vastly expanded their networks, bringing air travel – a relatively infrequent experience [several decades ago] – to people all over the country. For example, American, the biggest airline, flew to just 50 cities in 1975; it now serves more than three times that number. Southwest, which started in 1971 with a single route in Texas, now flies to 61 cities, not counting those it serves through a code-sharing arrangement with ATA.

Deregulation has been a beyond-your-wildest-dreams success. Consumers have more choice than ever before, more destinations and lower prices. They can choose from flying on relatively-Spartan Southwest to luxuriating in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class or checking in at Lufthansa’s First-Class-only terminal in Frankfurt.

The problem with the system is that the government has not kept up with its side of the bargain. The air traffic control system is mired in the 1980s. The physical control tower infrastructure is crumbling. Basic consumer rights are not enforced — airlines use bait-and-switch advertising and disguise their prices with a plethora of hidden fees for everything from checked luggage to meals, pillows and blankets that are discovered only after going through almost the entire booking process.

We don’t need to go back to the good old days of regulation. We need to go back to the good old days of government that actually worked and functioned for the people, the airlines’ customers. Basic enforcement of normal consumer protections, honest advertising and old-time customer service would stop the current trend of unconscionable customer care.

That enforcement would silence consumer advocates clamoring for re-regulation as well.

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  • john m

    Thank you for expressing the idea so effectively! I remember flying prior to deregulation and it was for those with money as the airfares were really high. I remember that United used to have a route that flew from San Francisco to Oakland, to Sacramento to Reno to Elko to Salt Lake City to Denver. This was initially done using a 727 and then later United switched to a 737. The travelers flying between the busy points subsidized those flying from Reno to Elko or Elko to Salt Lake City.

  • Lyngengr

    Call it “basic consumer protections” or “re-regulation”, it is really the same thing. While you believe “deregulation has been an amazing success”, are you really better off flying now than you did “in the old days”? Personally, I think not. It is almost like the wild west trying to book air travel and then use it now.

    I fly mostly on business, and over the past 15 years it has really turned into an ordeal rather than a reasonable value proposition. The airlines have all sorts hidden fees, absurd rules, and bizarre pricing schemes. Let’s put an end to this nonsense and make everyone operate to a set of rules that make sense for the consumer, not the airline. If that isn’t regulation, call it what you like.

  • Heather Collins

    I agree that we should not return to the regulation-days as they were
    “in the good old days”. This allowed the demand to dictate prices
    and stir up some competition.

    That said, SOMETHING needs to be done (call it what ever you want, but
    “regulation” is not it) about the WAY the airlines price the bottom-line
    of a ticket to get from point A to point B.

    I didn’ t have a problem with the airlines needing to raise prices in
    order to cover the high cost of fuel we ALL went thru for most of 2008.
    We could all relate to their concern about knowing that bills had to be
    paid. We all dealt with high gas prices in our own way.

    However, they lost the understanding of the public by “nickel and
    diming” people. No customer, in dealing with ANY business, likes this tactic. I want to pay ONE price that gets me: a seat, luggage sent, food
    on long hauls, sodas (esp with dehydration being a problem). I don’t
    have a problem with them taking away the magazines.

    I DO have a problem with ANY business that talks to their customers like
    they are stupid. For example: reducing the box of ice cream and then
    make a point of marketing the “we haven’t raised our prices”! The
    airlines took services away from the once inclusive price (such as luggage),
    started charging separately for it yet, didn’t lower the price of the ticket
    to reflect that loss of service. How long did it take for the public to figure
    out that we were being charge TWICE to send luggage…once for
    the price built into the price of the base ticket that wasn’t reduced, and
    again since we now had to pay per piece.

  • Frank

    However, they lost the understanding of the public by “nickel and
    diming” people. No customer, in dealing with ANY business, likes this tactic. I want to pay ONE price that gets me: a seat, luggage sent, food
    on long hauls, sodas (esp with dehydration being a problem).
    =========================================================

    next time I purchase a business suit at macy’s I’ll be sure to say, how dare you try to make me pay TWICE. One: I purchased the suit for $400.00, and now I have to pay for alternations to have a hem put in my pants. Outrageous!

    another business, the auto industry. both foreign and domestic. You pay a factory price for the vehicle and pay EXTRA for things, like a radio, certain tires, heating.

    Thirdly, they nickle and dime, to keep AIR FARES as low as possible. Especially on the internet. Airlines are under great pressure to have fares listed on the first page of travel sites, if not, they end up on pages within the site and most likely will not be clicked on.

    Fees for services rendered. Imagine that.
    Dont like it?……………………..go: http://www.greyhound.com/home/

  • Jim

    Basic consumer protection laws are regulations!

    There are numerous regulations currently enforced on airlines (for example, pilots must be licensed). What most people want are regulations that work – including additional regulations that address what appears to be broken about air travel.

    Certainly, more can be done to improve, modernize and augment air travel infrastructure (towers, airports, etc.). This costs money – tax money – and it must compete with other, worthwhile uses of federal funds.

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