Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sitting on the Tarmac

The federal government will impose big fines starting this spring on airlines that keep passengers waiting on the tarmac too long without feeding them or letting them off the plane.

Airlines that let a plane sit on the tarmac for more than two hours without giving passengers food or water, or more than three hours without offering them the option of getting off, will face fines of $27,500 a passenger, the secretary of transportation announced on Monday.
Does this rule make sense?  At first blush it might sound reasonable, but let's think it through.

Without the rule, some planes that have been sitting for three hours leave soon after the three-hour point, while some sit on the tarmac for an extended, additional period.

The planes in the first category arrive at their destinations even later, becuase it takes time to get passengers off and back on the plance, and because the plane ends up at the back of the line for takeoffs.  Worse, some of these flights get cancelled.

So, sometimes the rule benefits passengers, sometimes it makes them worse off.

Does the Department of Transportation have any evidence that the welfare of passengers is higher, on average, under the rule?

No.  It has just pandered to customer annoyance and the press coverage of a few extreme incidents.  It has responded to what is seen (the long delays that occur without the rule) and ignored what is unseen (the canceled flights and delays that will result from the rule).

Bastiat is spinning in his grave.

20 comments:

David said...

From what I heard reported, the rules won't take effect for another 100+ (150...180?) days. Of course, the story comes out right around the time of holiday travel, but I think the reason for the delay, aside from giving companies time to figure out how to deal with the regulation, is that it will actually take effect during a much less busy time of year that also has better weather conditions, when such delays don't normally happen anyway.

Of course, people will probably assume that the new rules are already in effect and trick themselves into thinking that they made a difference this holiday season. >3 hour waits on tarmac have always been extremely rare from what I know, but they are always reported on when they do occur.

David said...

And here you go:

"Two O'Hare-bound flights were delayed by more than three hours over the weekend, according to data compiled for the Tribune by FlightStats. But both flights departed shortly after the three-hour deadline on Saturday: United Airlines Flight 363 left Washington, D.C., two minutes after that point; US Airways Flight 29 departed Philadelphia 11 minutes after the mandated cutoff.

Had the rule been in place, the planes likely would have been forced to return to an airport gate, before heading to the back of the line of planes waiting to depart. Or the flights may have been canceled altogether, stranding passengers."

http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-tue-passenger-rights-dec22,0,3284060.story

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

That's great, David. Thanks for that clip.

Jess Austin said...

You're only considering the first effect. Sure, if this rule were applied without notice, planes just under the three-hour mark would return to the gate, probably resulting in a net time loss for passengers and increased costs for airlines. But since the airlines have plenty of notice on this rule, that won't be the case (and in the long run wouldn't be, even if the rule did take effect without notice).

An airline the methods and procedures of which routinely subject its passengers to three hours of tarmac time would under this new rule lose millions of dollars. So, such airlines, given this notice, after planting Chicago Tribune stories to no avail, will be strongly incented to modify their M&Ps, to reduce the likelihood of excessive tarmac time. I expect instances of even two hours on the tarmac to decrease as a result of M&P improvements. The knock-on effects probably won't extend all the way down (i.e., we might have more 15 minute delays), but the line had to be drawn somewhere, and three hours is quite conservative.

The orthodox libertarian response will be that the market optimizes tarmac time, and so people who don't like to be kidnapped should just pay more for their tickets. I'm practical enough to realize that the airfare market is already far from a free one. Both the wide disparity in market power between provider and customer, and the rarity of this sort of event, argue in support of this new rule.

James Mitchell said...

This is Exhibit I that supports the case that libertarians are often crazy, totally nuts. Read his post carefully:

"more than three hours without offering them the option of getting off"

In other words, liberatarians believe that even though the flight has been delayed for more than three hours, if a passenger says, "I've had enough, I want to get off the plane," the airplane should be permitted to say, "Sorry, we will continue to hold you against your will." The airline could hold you hostage for ten hours under his theory.

In any other circumstances, this would constitute kidnapping or unlawful detainer/imprisonment.

If the airline cannot get the plane off the ground within three hours, for whatever reason, I want the option of getting off the plane! Which I think is consistent with libertarian's normal preference for liberty.

James Mitchell
www.jmitchell.me

Dan Suraci said...

Mr. Mitchell, any first year law student will tell you that the first defense against false imprisonment or the like is consent.

When you buy your airline ticket, you are signing a contract consenting to being stuck there for a specific amount of time.

It is more invasive for the government to say to the American public that they cannot sign a contract of their own choosing.

When there are bad contracts (and certainly you have a valid concern), it is the free market that should allow the consumers to avoid airlines which "imprison" their passengers.

Happy Holidays.

-Dan

Jess Austin said...

Dan, let's not get our policy advice from 1Ls. No one ever read a contract while purchasing carriage, and indefinite detention was never included in the fine print, let alone advertised. All of your and the airlines' assertions are after the fact and self-serving. (Am I the only almost-libertarian around who finds it a bit unfair that large corporations may rewrite existing contracts at will, while the same privilege is not extended to their customers?)

Extant restrictions on passenger conduct are intended to increase safety. The airline's choice to detain hundreds of people in an unhealthy environment for hours is not motivated by safety concerns, although that decision gains force from regulations that are so motivated. Someone who decided to open an armed door, slide down the inflatable ramp, and walk back to the terminal sometime in the fourth hour on the ground would probably regret it, if he wasn't simply executed by TSA thugs for the crime of walking on public property. The new rule will help the party that actually causes such an unpleasant situation, to regret having done so.

"The Free Market", especially as it exists at this moment, is not an arbiter of virtue and ethics; it is only a (fairly noisy) means of communication concerning resource-utilization preferences. If you insist on anthropomorphizing it, let us say that it doesn't care about the indignities of modern air travel. At what loss of personal autonomy would you draw the line? Do you really have to deplane on a five-hour layover? Would you like to be issued a paper bag in lieu of restroom access? If an oversold passenger sat on your lap? Left to its own devices, the market would countenance all of these. There are "contracts" that our courts won't enforce. We have laws against indentured servitude. The difference between that situation and the one under discussion is one of degree only.

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