A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

May 2010

Less Regulation equals Shorter Wait Times

There’s been a lot of talk about airline delays in the last few months, most of it stemming from the new regulations from the U.S. Department of Transportation that punishes airlines for, what they call “stranding passengers”.  New federal guidelines allow for fines up to $27,500 per passenger if an airplane is stuck on a tarmac for over three hours.  A quick calculation shows a loaded Beoing 757 could conceivably cost an airline more than $5,000,000 in fines if it’s delayed for whatever reason and cannot depart or cannot dock at a gate.  The U.S. Transportation Department sees nothing wrong with handing out the penalties, stating the airlines could do a better job in scheduling flights and crews.   It makes no difference to those who lobbied for these fines, or to the lawmakers who instituted them, just what the cause of the delay happens to be.  But there are those, including me, who have serious reservations about departing into questionable weather, or in an aircraft that has developed mechanical problems.   

 The air carriers are now threatening they’ll be forced to cancel flights that could for some reason be delayed, rather than face the fines.  A spokesman for the D.O.T.  has come out and said the airlines should have spare aircraft and flight crews available to avoid cancellations.  Sounds simple enough.  Schedule two 747’s and two entire crews for every flight, just in case.   This seems to be the way the flying public and the politicians would like to see the airlines operate.  Well, in the real world, that’s the most absurd idea to come along in many years. 

This whole story sounded like a joke when it first surfaced, so I did a lot of searching for the real facts.  It turns out this is no laughing matter, particularly for the air carriers who must plan around weather and mechanical troubles, air traffic control systems, safety and security issues, sick passengers, local airport problems, and countless other unforeseen circumstances that can throw a curve ball at a flight arrival time.  I have worked for and seen the obstacles faced by small aviation companies.  It is a tough business and these fines are nothing more than a political knee-jerk reaction to a powerful lobby of self-centered people who see themselves and their travel plans as being above all else. 

 The reality is that air carriers get their passengers from A to B, on schedule a large percentage of the time.  They don’t sit around and plan these inconveniences and delays.  Some airlines aren’t as prompt as others, but these ones soon get a reputation, and flyers go somewhere else if they can, or simply take another mode of transportation.  Any business, airline or not, will not survive in a free market without providing good service to its customers.  Political intervention should be for safety reasons only, not for dictating schedules and handing out fines because passengers are whining when they’re held up and inconvenienced.

 If you disagree with me on this, then consider other waits we’re all faced with on a daily basis.  Why are airlines being singled out?  What about traffic congestion?  That’s the biggest waste of time in any city on the planet, yet the Department of Transportation has not stepped in and handed out fines to the engineers and bureaucrats charged with the responsibility of keeping freeways moving?  Where is the lobby on traffic problems?  Lineups!  They’re another source of frustration and time wasted.  We line up for almost everything these days.  We do it at the post office, the supermarket, the bank, for government services and for fast food.   Doctors, particularly those practicing a specialty, are notorious for making us wait.  We even wait hours in hostpital emergency rooms.  And I challenge you to find a corporation or government department that answers the phone without voice or number prompts, then puts you on hold for not just a few minutes, but sometimes hours.  The cable company I get my internet from can keep me on hold for over an hour when I call for technical assistance, and all the while I’m listening to their commercials telling me what great speed and customer service they provide.  Not only am I inconvenienced, I’m insulted every minute I’m on hold. 

 Of course the solution to the internet provider is to move on to another one, which I did!  It should be the same with any service, including an airline.  There are instances of monopolies however, and this is what should be attacked by the lobbyists and the politicians.  They ought to be addressing the real root of the problems, not stepping in where they have no business and inserting stop-gap measures which are unrealistic.  I believe there would be more airlines operating if there were fewer regulations, less red tape and greater freedoms to make corporate decisions based on business practices.  More airlines would ultimately result in better customer service as they all fight to survive.  No company could continue operations if three-hour delays on the tarmac were common occurrences.

 I know there are arguments on both sides, and this isn’t the simple solution.  Nobody likes lineups and delays.  Many times I have delayed departure or cancelled a flight in my own airplanes when the weather looks bad, or because of a mechanical surprise, bad mag, faulty instrument or a stiff elevator control … whatever.  I have waited on the ramp for reasons that were beyond my control, and waiting for a Customs officer comes to mind as one example.  The airlines have much bigger problems, things that go well beyond their capability to solve.  What’s needed is less government intervention, not more.  As things continue to spiral out of control, this new law is just another of example of how we’re allowing, in fact requesting the government to take over more and more control of our lives.            

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