IF THERE’S ANYTHING MORE dangerous than a blizzard at an airport, it’s legislators who react to it by proposing new laws. That’s what happened this week after last week’s chain of weather-triggered errors by Long Beach’s favorite airline, JetBlue Airways.
An ice storm last Wednesday slammed New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, stranding thousands of JetBlue passengers (including 99 on a flight that inexcusably sat on the tarmac for almost 10 hours). Problems snowballed when a runway closed and the airline bungled the deployment of personnel, aircraft and baggage, leading to hundreds of flight cancellations and thousands of destroyed weekends. It took until Tuesday for the airline to resume normal operations.
JetBlue screwed up big time. But that doesn’t mean Congress needs to intervene with headline-chasing legislation such as a Passenger Bill of Rights proposed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena).
Boxer and Thompson want to impose regulations requiring airlines to let passengers deplane when on-ground delays stretch longer than three hours, provide better information about delays and cancellations and offer stranded passengers food, water and adequate restrooms.
These all sound like nice ideas. But they probably won’t produce the desired effect. Take deplaning. In a system as complex, crowded and highly regulated as U.S. air travel, any seemingly minor change has the potential to throw the whole network out of whack, delaying tens of thousands instead of hundreds. And passengers are usually better off not leaving a grounded plane because an aircraft returning to the terminal loses its place in line for takeoff, marooning fliers even longer.
The market may already be correcting the passenger rights issue on its own. JetBlue suffered from the storm more than other carriers because its no-cancellations policy didn’t leave it wiggle room to shuffle passengers around when traffic backed up. Its incompetence is being rewarded with bad publicity and customer defections, which have pushed the company to change policy and hire more employees to manage emergencies.
The airline is even implementing its own retroactive “customer bill of rights,” which promises better information about delays and cancellations and compensation for delays and over-bookings. It doesn’t mention food, water or bathrooms, but getting these up to snuff would be far cheaper than risking another PR debacle.