Bernie Sanders, like all of us, has some valid gripes about air travel today. He’s come out with a set of solutions he’d like the Department of Transportation to impose through new regulation. This includes forcing airlines to skip crucial maintenance, and requiring flight attendants to work when they’re sick with Covid-19.
Airlines Have Been Bad Actors Throughout The Pandemic
Despite giving airlines $54 billion in direct taxpayer money so that they would keep everyone employed and ready to fly when passengers returned, airlines shed staff. For instance Delta eliminated 31% of its employee count. American paid pilots to stay home, rather than ensuring they had the takeoffs and landings needed to remain certified. American and Delta also retired aircraft.
Now that demand is back, airlines don’t have the staff to operate the flights they’ve been selling to customers. Several carriers cut their schedules back in advance, and flights are still cancelling for reasons other than weather. (Some of the blame is on the FAA which is understaffed in air traffic control, but that’s not the biggest problem.)
It takes time to hire and train. And there was real management experience lost as airlines pushed out veterans during the pandemic. This was all legal – after all, they (or their lobbyists) drafted their own bailout language.
Bernie Sanders Has Solutions
So what to do about airline operational failures? Senator Bernie Sanders demands three things:
A nervous democratic socialist in first class. #FeelTheBern pic.twitter.com/XbONXNBZNn
— Hank Thomas (@HankThomasDC) February 13, 2020
Passengers Are Going To Be Hoping Their Flight Is Delayed
Currently passengers facing significant delays are entitled to a refund. Sanders wants the DOT to define one hour as signficant, and to force airlines to provide refunds “and alternative transportation” – so a one hour delay means zero revenue and full cost of travel, plus “airlines must be required to cover the meals and lodging for all passengers” in the event of delays of four hours or more “in addition to a ticket refund and alternative means of transportation.”
Passengers would be entitled to air travel for free and a free hotel room for every four hour delay. Here Sanders makes no exception for weather (or government air traffic control, security, or customs and immigration) issues.
More Tarmac Delay Fines
Reducing the threshold from 4 and 3 hours, to 3 and 2 hours, for tarmac delays doesn’t seem in any way related to the issues airlines are having at the moment. There have been some long tarmac delays recently in Texas due to weather, where planes divert and can’t be brought into the gate and pilots determine it’s unsafe to disembark an aircraft due to lightning. No fines are due in those cases anyway. This proposal is something of a non-sequitur.
Big Fines For Delayed Flights
A fully loaded American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER that delays 2-3 hours would incur a $4.6 million fine. That’s a strong incentive for preventive maintenance, but it’s also a disincentive to address maintenance issues on the spot.
Borderline issue? Pressure mechanics and pilots to run with it because making the right decision is way too costly. It also hands an operational gun to pilot unions in contract negotiations. Pilots deciding to ‘work to rule’ not only inconvenience passengers, but incur liability in the millions for their airline per flight.
And if the fine applies just to delays and not cancellations, this basically forces an airline to turn every delay into a cancellation (and therefore cancel downline flights as well).
Requires Airlines To Force Workers To Show Up Sick
Airlines have been trimming their schedules in advance in response to operational challenges, in order to rebook customers and prevent them from getting stuck at the airport and ruining their trips.
They have also been publishing schedules they’d like to operate, and then 2-4 months in advance adjusting those schedules based on facts on the ground such as Covid restrictions, closed borders, and aircraft not available because of regulatory challenges between the FAA and Boeing.
If an airline cancels a flight due to lack of staffing, they could be liable for $55,000 per passenger if they cancel the flight. That means airlines must absolutely not cancel flights due to staffing. They also cannot operate profitably without scheduling their planes to fly. The only way out of that challenge, since it takes time to fully staff, is to require workers to show up sick.
American Airlines didn’t have many operational challenges during the peak holiday period when they offered bonus pay for picking up extra flights and a massive perfect attendance bonus. Some flight attendants were making an extra two to three months’ pay. This overlapped the first Omicron wave of the pandemic, and crew were showing up sick.
American will say that’s never their intention of course, but when a flight attendant just needs to work one more week without missing a trip in order to pocket an extra couple months’ pay, it’s tough to stay home especially with a mild (but infectious) case. This happened seemingly a lot in late December. And it’s what all airlines would have to do to avoid $55,000 per passenger fines.
Here’s How To Fix The Airlines
There’s not enough competition in an airline industry protected and subsidized by government. We should end the practice of government-owned airports entering long-term gate leases that exclude new carrier entrants. We should eliminate takeoff and landing slots at congested airports (a government-granted property right that says only incumbent carriers may fly) and replace that with congestion pricing. We should allow foreign ownership of U.S. airlines. And we should repeal the liability shield courts have concluded exists within the Airline Deregulation Act and allow consumers to sue under state contract ‘duties of good faith and fair dealing’ claims.
In other words we should hold airlines responsible for their actions towards consumers, stop letting them pick our pockets, and allow competition to flourish in the industry. Then in order to grow capacity, we should expand use of airport P3 programs and spin off air traffic control into a separate entity – so that the FAA isn’t regulating itself, and so we can make long-term technology investments outside of the vagaries of annual federal appropriations cycles.