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The Savvy Traveler : Congress Considering Re-Regulation of Airlines

October 18, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

In the last 30 days I have been doing a fair share of flying, taking 15 flights throughout the United States and Canada.

I flew Eastern on the shuttle from Boston to New York; Delta from Jackson Hole, Wyo., to Salt Lake City; United from Los Angeles to Chicago; PSA from San Francisco to Burbank; America West from Baltimore to Phoenix; Cathay Pacific from San Francisco to Vancouver, and Continental from Chicago to Denver.

The score card is not a pretty one.

Every flight but one was late in taking off. That one flight left and arrived on time--the PSA flight between San Francisco and Burbank. But they lost my luggage (it was found later).

On each of these flights not one passenger got angry at the delays (including me). It was as if we all expected to be late.

Is it ever going to get better?

Is this what deregulation has wrought?

After a rash of consumer complaints about poor airline service and adverse publicity, Congress has been reacting in an unusually swift manner to consider the possible re-regulation of the airline business.

Congressional Bills

Both houses are working toward passage of some tough regulations aimed at reducing delays, mishandled baggage and misleading advertising, as well as improving airline maintenance and safety standards. Observers expect Congress to reach some type of agreement by the end of the year.

At the same time the Department of Transportation has announced a "truth in scheduling" rule that requires 14 large air carriers to publicly disclose key information about flight delays and baggage problems.

One bill (H.R. 3051) approved by the House Public Works and Transportation Committee would require that the DOT publish a monthly report detailing on-time performance, baggage misdeeds, canceled flights, bumping and passenger complaints.

Some of the penalities are quite stiff. A carrier that cancels any flight within 72 hours of its scheduled departure time for any reason other than safety would be fined $10,000.

Refunds on airline tickets would have to be paid within 30 days. Baggage reimbursement claims also would have to be paid within a month of application. And, if an airline doesn't deliver a passenger's bags within two hours of arrival time, the airline would have to provide the passenger with a one-way, space-available ticket.

Another consumer protection bill (H.R. 3158) would require airlines to provide passengers with a written explanation when a flight is canceled or delayed by more than three hours.

Benefits Cited

But not everyone blames deregulation for the woes of the airline business.

"What deregulation did was open the door to a host of possibilities, most of them beneficial for the passenger," says one airline president. "When airlines failed, it's because deregulation also gave an opportunity for bad airline management to show how really poorly they could perform in an open and unregulated environment."

Airlines and passengers have been victims of a confluence of unfortunate events since deregulation started in 1977. At the time, most U.S. airlines already had a dismal earnings record, due to upwardly spiraling labor, fuel and material costs. And those costs continued to rise.

Then came the strike of U.S. air controllers in 1981 as the number of airline flights was increasing rapidly. The Federal Aviation Administration has never fully recovered from that strike (the striking controllers were fired by President Reagan).

Six years later there are 2,500 fewer fully qualified controllers. And of the 15,000 controllers on the job, another 2,500 are eligible for retirement. Aging air traffic equipment and a sharp decline in the number of workers qualified to repair these complex systems are also contributing to the number of close calls.

The crowded airspace has resulted in a record number of near-collisions, and only recently has the FAA been virtually forced by public pressure to impose stiffer measures to control that airspace. According to the FAA, there have been 857 near-collisions reported through Sept. 30. For the same nine-month period in 1986, the total was 628.

Since the Aeromexico DC-9 disaster in Cerritos in September, 1986, a third of American Airlines' reported near-collisions have occurred in the Los Angeles area, although fewer than 4% of its flights originated here.

Only within the last three months has the FAA added airspace restrictions for private planes in the Los Angeles area, but most industry observers don't think the new rules go far enough.

Airport Capacity

Then there's the problem of airport capacity. Not one major airport has been built in the United States since 1974. Many airports have been stretched to capacity, and long ground delays and runway congestion is not uncommon.

To be sure, deregulation had its initial impact on airline fares. As new airlines came on the scene, there were some immediate effects. In some markets, fares went down dramatically.

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