Threats of higher fares cloud passenger bill of rights

One of the best ways to scare consumers is with the threat of price increases. And so it should be no surprise that opponents of the proposed airline passenger bill of rights are resorting to this tactic in their fight with frustrated travelers who are trying to get some protection in writing. But do the arguments against the bill have any merit?

For an excellent distillation of the issue, see Paul Beebe's article in The Salt Lake Tribune, which outlines both sides' arguments in detail.

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As travelers, we're all aware of the problems: long delays, cancellations, limited communication, and seemingly indifferent airline staff. Beebe quotes airline spokespeople who blame these problems on an antiquated air traffic control system that forces controllers to keep planes spread far apart for safety, which in turn leads to more grounded aircraft. As for the customer-service issues, airlines claim the free market should be allowed to work its magic. As C.A. Howlett, senior vice president of public affairs for US Airways puts it, "The market will adjust and react to bad customer service just like they react to bad prices."

If a bill of rights does become law, those opposed—such as the Air Travelers Association's David Stempler—say airlines would be forced to cancel long-delayed flights and stock adequate amounts of food and drink onboard, both of which would result in higher fares. In his words, the bill is "feel-good legislation, but not do-good legislation."

The bill's opponents have a valid point. If the system guiding the planes is out-of-date and contributes to air traffic jams, modernizing it makes good sense. Still, their suggestion that simply dealing with customers in a better way will solve the problem may make for a good sound bite, but the history of the air travel industry shows that it's unrealistic. With the exception of a few carriers, little has been done to help the average traveler.

So would a bill of rights lead to fare increases? Maybe. But I know that I'd be willing to fork over a few extra bucks to have a reasonable guarantee of decent service.

I suspect I'm not alone.

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