- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2001

The sure signs of summer are upon us once again. The temperature is rising, tourists are everywhere, and things are slowing to a crawl. And thats only in the nations airports.

Instead of barbecues and baseball, the hallmark of summer in America increasingly seems to be air travel delays. Although flight delays so far this year are running below last year, Americans can still expect to spend quite a bit of time sitting on hot tarmac over the next few months.

Much of the media and many politicians have had little difficulty pointing out the villains behind all this. It´s the greedy airlines, of course. A well-publicized report by the Transportation Department´s inspector general in February seemed to confirm this: Airlines hadn´t met the passenger service goals they committed to last year. The obvious conclusion: It´s time for the government to come in and fix things.

But a closer look at that report showed a different story. The customer-service record of the airlines was decidedly mixed with improvements in many areas, and persistent problems in others. But the report also concluded that the primary source of consumer dissatisfaction delays could not be solved by the airlines themselves. The source of that problem, it turns out, is the FAA´s air traffic control system, as well as local airport authorities. Instead of being the hero, it turns out the government is the villain.

A number of studies have since come out detailing how FAA mismanagement has helped put the air travel system into the mess it´s now in. The General Accounting Office, for instance, recently reported on how the FAA´s modernization program begun 20 years ago, has encountered delay after delay with key projects years behind schedule, and costing billions more than budgeted. No wonder the FAA was the last user of vacuum tubes in the world.

These facts are seemingly buried in the public debate. Sure, there´s a lot of talk of improving the FAA it has already announced yet another modernization plan, and talks of instituting a "performance-oriented culture," whatever that is. But Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta has squelched talk of more substantial steps, such as privatization. (A step Canada, a nation hardly known for its immoderation, has already taken).

Instead, Congress has been looking to enact a new "Passenger´s Bill of Rights." While the regulations in current drafts are limited, calling for such things as more information on the reasons for delayed flights, the ante is almost certain to grow in the current regulatory climate. One passenger advocacy group recently issued a wish list of new rules, which includes everything from mandated refunds for delays (200 percent of the ticket price for delays of two to three hours, and 100 percent for each hour thereafter), to notification to passengers of the name of all insecticides used on the aircraft.

New regulations such as these are unlikely to give passengers the relief they need; more likely they would simply increase the cost of travel without improving quality. Since today´s problems are largely due to the government´s air traffic control system, any solution needs to address that.

So why not adopt a real passenger´s bill of rights one that applies to the government itself? Why not a right to reimbursement from the FAA when your flight is delayed due to air traffic control problems? Maybe even a ticket tax refund when air traffic control miscues cause you to miss your connecting flight. Should passengers have better information? Why not require FAA bureaucrats to inform them of chronically delayed improvements and antiquated equipment? Let´s even require members of Congress to inform voters of the government´s role in mucking up their travel schedules.

Now there´s a bill of rights that gets to the heart of the problem. Does anyone have the courage to propose it?

James L. Gattuso is vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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