Government shouldn’t try to fix JetBlue

Love was not in the air for everyone on Valentine’s Day. JetBlue’s performance during an ice storm in New York and the subsequent cancellations for many days following the storm were indefensible. But so is the Congressional response.

Framed as “JetBlue’s Blues,” “Jet(black and)Blue” or “Jet Blew It,” the criticism continues for a series of gaffes that led to passengers being stuck in planes on the tarmac for six to 10 hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The mix of putrid toilets, sweltering planes and an inadequate food supply is certainly horrific, but the question of how best to avoid such an experience in the future remains.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), along with Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), think they have the answer: legislation. Their bills seek to mandate adequate food and sanitary restrooms in cases like JetBlue’s, along with a provision that would require passengers to be able to deboard planes after three hours.

Although airline fiascos, such as a similar weather-related stranding in Austin, Texas in December make headlines, the entire flying public should be suspicious of any sort of government intrusion.

The correct response is the one that occurred: a contrite response from JetBlue founder and CEO David G. Neeleman. He has admitted to being “humiliated and mortified” and has introduced a “Customer Bill of Rights” to set the ground rules of consequences – including financial compensation – for passengers should something like this happen again.

Questions remain about whether JetBlue’s mea culpa will be enough to stem an estimated financial loss of $30 million, as well as what will be defined as the “controllable irregularity” that triggers the airline to make good on its promises. But these are answers the free market should decide – not big government.

The commercial airline industry is fiercely competitive. With multiple airline choices available, consumers that are outraged at the stranding of passengers, lack of customer service or other frequent air travel complaints are free to book tickets with other airlines. If enough people change their airline loyalties, things will change, or at the very least, some airlines will be forced to go out of business.

But ironically, JetBlue offers what airline passengers increasingly seem to be demanding – rock-bottom fares. In a sense, the inadequate communications systems during bad weather are something air travelers themselves can be blamed for.

Think about it from the perspective of finding the best deal for a favorite Spring Break destination. Scouring the Internet for the best deal should come with the realization that rock-bottom prices are usually enabled by the many cuts that airlines have undertaken. These cuts can include pillows, free meals and perhaps even the operational infrastructure to deal with bad weather.

Now some passenger advocacy groups are pushing to get their elected representatives to step in. Such meddling is more concerning than the numerous stories detailing a day in the life of captive travelers.

This is the same federal government that, according to a Hartford Courant editorial, has enacted “work rules requiring crews to take eight-hour breaks between flights.” These work rules exacerbated JetBlue’s difficulties by encouraging a longer time away from the gate since returning causes a flight to lose its spot for takeoff. Additionally, returning to the gate is now defined as the end of a “flight,” which therefore requires subsequent crew rest.

But above all, despite plenty of blame to go around, weather-related delays aren’t enough of a problem for the federal government to get involved. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2006 fewer than 1 percent of aircraft arrivals were delayed due to weather.

Legislation that would have the effect of raising airline costs to prepare for such an unlikely occurrence would be wrong. For the cases of stranded passengers that do occur, it should be the passengers who decide the fate of the airline at fault.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.