Commentary Magazine


Blue on Valentine’s

The Valentine’s Day snowstorm that caused massive trouble for JetBlue—hundreds of canceled flights, ten-hour delays, finger pointing, and “voice cracking” pleas for forgiveness from JetBlue’s chairman—spurred Senator Barbara Boxer of California to propose a “Passengers’ Bill of Rights” to protect passengers, and especially “infants and the elderly,” because “no one should be held hostage.”

The Washington Post would seem to agree, editorializing that more regulation is “a fair approach.” The Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, believes that it is a terrible idea: “the market will fix the problem better than any legislator.”

In fact, one might see Senator Boxer’s initiative as an example of the dangers of a Democratic Congress, and especially of the party’s core belief that government can fix problems better than markets can. “If there’s anything more dangerous than a blizzard at an airport,” warns the Los Angeles Times, “it’s legislators who react to it by proposing new laws.”

A law like Senator Boxer’s already exists elsewhere. The European Union has an “Air Passenger Rights” act that entitles delayed passengers to compensation of $350 to $800, depending on the length of the delay. The problem is that delays are often created by circumstances beyond an airline’s control, like a snowstorm. So instead of delaying flights and putting themselves at risk of violating the law, carriers in Europe are now simply canceling flights. Surely the majority of passengers would rather be delayed six hours than be nowhere at all.

And cancellation still causes havoc, as European airlines are not necessarily obliged to compensate passengers for delays caused by “extraordinary circumstances.” Who defines what those are? Judges, lawyers, and litigation. Boxer’s short statement does not mention financial penalties for airlines, but even if exact dollar figures are not incorporated into her law, litigation against the airline industry by its “hostages” would not be long in coming.

That’s when there’s trouble on the ground. When there’s trouble in the air, passengers would be truly at risk. For instance, two years ago, shortly after the European regulation became law, an engine of a British Airways Boeing 747 caught fire following takeoff from Los Angeles. After contacting BA’s control center, the pilots were told to continue the eleven-hour flight to London instead of landing the plane—which would have caused a delay of at least five hours and cost BA $200,000 in penalties.

The risk BA took was small: flying on three engines is considered safe. But it takes just one miscalculation to cause a tragedy. As compared with that prospect, being “held hostage” in a plane for six, or ten, or even eleven hours—especially in this age of mobile phones and in-seat entertainment—seems like a tolerable fate after all.