It has always been my understanding that the U.S. government establishes laws and then hires, or appoints, people to ensure that they are enforced.
Every so often, though, a federal agency finds a law not worthy of enforcement. The Department of Transportation is one such agency. At issue is the subject of discounting international air fares.
The Federal Aviation Act makes it illegal to undercut the official tariff of the International Air Transportation Assn. (IATA) to which most major carriers belong. That's the law . . . U.S. law.
Since deregulation, the responsibility for enforcing that law has lain with the department. And it flatly refuses to take action against violators.
The international air-fare scene is a mess, mostly because it's not so much a matter of what a ticket is supposed to cost but of where you can negotiate the best deal.
Many airlines discount their seats to corporations whose executives travel abroad. And to ethnic operators. And to top-producing travel agents.
Some of them have even, of all things, been known to wheel and deal directly with the public.
The result of all of this blatant contravention of the law is that nobody seems to know just what international travel is supposed to cost. And not enough people seem to be sufficiently concerned about it to try to change the situation.
And why should they? The Department of Transportation has made it crystal clear, in its public pronouncements, that it does not intend to take action against anybody violating that particular clause of the Federal Aviation Act.
In short, the published tariff for overseas air transportation from this country has become a joke.
Some people wonder, as well they might, why the department is extending blanket dispensation to breakers of a law it is sworn to uphold. The answer to that question is complicated.
Partly, it's a symptom of deregulation fever. Nowadays, anything that hints at lowering prices and increasing competition (presumably, to see how low discounts can be driven) is A-OK with official Washington.
And then there's the apparent contradiction of domestic air fares, which are legal to discount. That, of course is because domestic air transportation is a purely U.S. matter.
And the U.S. government wants market forces to dictate prices . . . the lower the better.
But when you start talking about international flights, you're dealing with the wishes and dislikes of many foreign governments. Most of them, publicly, at any rate, want their national carriers to maintain the IATA tariff.
Hence, the federal statute demands that there be no rebating of prices on international services.
The department apparently has decided that it doesn't make sense to ban discounting of international fares when it's allowed domestically. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander seems to be the prevailing view.
No matter how inconsistent the law appears, though, the law is the law and the danger of allowing federal agencies to make up their minds whether or not to enforce is obvious. Today . . . discounting air tickets. Tomorrow?
Nor can I help wondering how, or even if, the public good is served by this abdication of responsibility by the department.
It benefits business executives and corporations, of course. And a few travel agents may come out of it with a bigger commission.
A Public Gain?
But does the traveling public gain anything? Do you, for example, know where to go to find a rebate or a discount? You can ask your travel agent. You can go directly to the airline and try to negotiate a deal, but neither may be prepared to knock a few bucks of the price, or kick back a piece of the commission.
So you're stuck with paying the IATA published rate for the service. Which means that you're at a disadvantage. It's entirely possible that half of the people on the airplane with you will have paid less than you did for the privilege.
It's unfair to most travelers. It's unfair too, to the airlines and travel agents who try to live within the letter of the law. And it's not what was intended by deregulation.
When the government lifted its heavy hand from the air transportation throttle seven years ago, it intended to encourage new competitive forces in the industry domestically.
That's a far cry from giving the Department of Transportation carte blanche to try to accomplish something similar by ignoring the laws governing air travel internationally.