Of Airline Customer Service & Policy Change

Yellow toy airplane
Photo by Blend Archive / Unsplash

While attempting to sleep on the floor of the Charlotte airport one evening after my flight had been delayed long enough to spend the night in Terminal C, but not long enough to get to a hotel and have more than 90 minutes of shut-eye and return through security in time ("That'll take you at least two hours in the morning here," the gate agent told us), I found myself thinking about airline regulation.

Back in the freewheeling days of 1978, Congress decided to let airlines go ahead and set their own routes and fares in a move called the Airline Deregulation Act. Until that point, the federal government had been involved in airline routes and pricing; a then-young private industry serving a public good ought to have some support and guardrails.

But come the late 1970s, many - a bipartisan many, in fact, partially led by Senator Ted Kennedy and his staffer (future Supreme Court justice) Stephen Breyer - felt the federal government had too heavy a hand in airline regulation, making fares high and preventing airlines from streamlining operations. Deregulating the airlines was Congress' attempt to place "maximum reliance on competitive market forces." More airlines would enter the fold and more competition meant lower prices, went the thinking.

After deregulation, airlines could be footloose and fancy free! In the years following 1978, newbie airlines came online. Existing airlines expanded operations. Many ticket prices dropped and air travel tripled. Later, there were mergers (Continental and United, US Airways and American - with their powers combined, they became the world's largest airline).

And the trade off was that most everything else about air travel took a nose dive. Customers got, figuratively and literally, peanuts. As well as smaller seats, less legroom, baggage fees and mishandling, absurdly silly connections (flying from Maine to Indiana via Texas, as I did the other weekend), postage-stamp sized bathrooms that are nearly impossible for walkers, wheelchairs, or diaper changes, the list trots on.

Even Alfred E. Kahn, the original champion of airline deregulation, noted that one of the surprises of pulling back federal control was "the deterioration in quality of airline service."

These days, the Big Four - Delta, United, American, and Southwest - control an estimated 80% of the market. Smaller cities have reduced service, often at higher rates, and some have no service at all (think flyover country). And these Big Four have major lobbying arms. As Senator Richard Blumenthal put it, "The major obstacle to improving [airline] service is the industry’s lobbying." (United appears to be blowing away the competition in lobbying money spent.)

While being able to fly the friendly skies remains a miraculous feat - if you can afford it - the experience has become a stressor for many.

So there's a bit of a through line from airline deregulation in 1978 to my unsuccessful evening nap in Terminal C in 2024. Or the delays, overbooking, cancellations, unrefunded tickets you've perhaps contended with. Like health insurance horror stories, many of us have our airline nightmare experiences, don't we?

How can this change?

Airline Customer Service forms are about as useful as a paper bag in a monsoon. The federal Department of Transportation (DOT), currently helmed by South Bend's own Secretary Pete Buttigieg, still has a hand in aviation safety and passenger rights. And Congress via the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (known as T&I) and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (known as Senate Commerce), has oversight over DOT.

Among other things, those Committees are charged with reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the part of DOT that oversees aviation issues.

Reauthorization is Congress reviewing, revising, and updating existing law. Many laws that deal with changing industries, as the FAA does, are structured to be reauthorized periodically. Some reauthorizations are a year long, some are multi-year. The existing FAA reauth was set to expire December 31, 2023, so a short-term continuing resolution (CR) was passed to extend that through March 1, 2024. Congress in the business of buying time? Mon dieu!

Why not check the Committees' rosters to see if your Senators or House Rep sit on either. Any Member can make change, but Committee members are especially well positioned to.

To get a pulse on Congress' thinking, take a spin through the highlights of the FAA reauthorization that did pass the House (but not the Senate) last year. There's also an airline passenger protection bill over in the Senate; while it does have an original cosponsor who sits on the Committee of jurisdiction, there is no bipartisan cosponsor (why that matters here), so it likely won't get off the ground – pun gleefully intended!

The point here isn't to get us all juiced up over the airlines' sins, many though there are. The point is that most everything that irritates, angers, disappoints us isn't inevitable or unchangeable. It probably has a policy backstory. The more we understand that story, the more authorship we have to help rewrite it.

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