Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La, introduced legislation this week that would require airlines to allow all passengers to check one bag free of charge, and to carry on a second bag, also free of charge, subject only to reasonable size limits. The legislation also requires airlines to provide passengers with free access to restrooms and to provide free drinking water.
Following the trend to give catchy albeit ridiculous names to legislation, this is termed the Airline Passenger BASICS – or Basic Airline Standards to Improve Customer Satisfaction – Act. And rather than contain all the relevant provisions in a single act, it seems the good senator has not only an abundance of ideas but also of catchy acronyms, as she promises to shortly introduce a second bill, the Fair Airline Industry Revenue (FAIR) Act, which would impose penalties on airlines that don’t comply with the BASICS Act.
When an airline advertises a flight, that is how much it should cost, plain and simple. Passengers should not be charged additional fees for checked or carry-on baggage, drinkable water or other reasonable requests. Air travel can be a stressful experience for many reasons, but unfair fees for basic amenities should not be one of them. Passengers have been nickeled and dimed for far too long and something has to be done about it. Air carriers should be required to provide a minimum standard of service to their passengers or face additional fees – that is what the Airline Passenger BASICS Act and the FAIR Act will do.
On the face of it, there is both sense and fairness in what she says. The airlines have definitely over-reacted in their move towards ‘unbundling’ the various things that were formerly included in a ticket price, and there is a clear and steady move towards more and more things that were once included ‘for free’ being now charged at outrageously high levels as extras.
It surely offends anyone’s sense of fair play (anyone, that is, who isn’t an airline executive) to see a situation where it costs more to fly one’s suitcase to a destination than it costs to fly oneself, as is sometimes the case these days. One’s suitcase doesn’t require a seat, access to toilets, free drinks, and doesn’t earn frequent flier miles, while weighing perhaps half or less the weight of oneself and taking up massively fewer cubic feet of space. For that matter, a suitcase doesn’t also bring with it one or two oversized overweight carry-on items, too!
It is also true that it has become much harder to compare airfares or even understand what the true total cost of a flight will be. This is due to differing airline policies as to what is included and what is extra, and what the costs of the extra (but essential) items may be. It is fair to seek some sort of reasonably transparent pricing disclosures by the airlines.
Would Legislation be an Uncalled For Interference with Free Market Forces?
Is legislation to control how the airlines can unbundle their services and what they can sell them for the thin end of the wedge, and is this an example of ‘The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions’? Is it the start of re-regulating the airlines?
The Air Transport Association, the airlines’ lobbying group, predictably doesn’t like this new legislation. They say it would be unfair for passengers, because if they had to include the cost of a checked bag back into the ticket price, then all passengers would be paying for a service only used by some passengers (my best guess is that at least one third of passengers don’t check bags).
But the ATA also displays the danger of ‘reasoning by analogy’. They said it is common practice for other industries to charge fees for extra services, and because of that, they say why should the airlines be unfairly singled out for legislative oversight. In particular, their spokesman Steve Lott said
You don’t get one free Coke at your hotel when you check in
That is of course true, but hotels didn’t formerly give free Cokes and now charge for them, and most hotel guests don’t have an unavoidable need to buy a Coke from the hotel reception at checkin time. And when it comes to fees, hotels don’t charge you extra per suitcase you take into your room with you, they don’t charge you extra each time you take a shower, they don’t charge you extra if you want to sleep in the bed, and there is no coin operated electricity meter restricting the power you can use in the room.
Ignoring the weakness of the ATA analogy, the question remains – is this a matter that requires legislative oversight, or can the free market be relied upon to create the most appropriate balance between airlines and their passengers?
We certainly agree and support any requirement to make it easier for passengers to conveniently understand, up front, the total cost of air travel on competing airlines, including all ‘optional’ (but, for most of us, essential) fees, surcharges, taxes, and whatever else. The free market forces can not operate so efficiently in an environment where the airline successfully obfuscate their charging policies.
Furthermore, it is clear that free market forces are not working at present. Most airlines charge almost exactly the same for bags as their competitors, and with fees at outrageous and insultingly exploitive rather than fair levels, it seems clear the airlines have run amok with their fee charging.
So – do we need to beat the airlines with a legislative stick? Would simply requiring them to expose their exorbitant fees be sufficient?
What do you think?