- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Valentine’s Day snowstorm caused delayed and cancelled flights, airport mayhem, disgruntled passengers and horror stories of passengers stuck for upwards of ten hours in a plane on the tarmac. Before the snow had melted off, two senators were pushing for a “passengers’ bill of rights.” Sens. Olympia Snowe, Maine Republican, and Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, proposed the reactive legislation that would add unnecessary regulation to an industry that is already largely self-regulating, and successfully so despite what the few recent outliers have led people to conclude.

JetBlue Airways, the worst offender during the bad weather whose egregious faltering made headlines, has already adopted a policy that supercedes the proposed legislation. In an attempt to make amends and win back its customers, JetBlue announced Tuesday that it would compensate passengers for their time if they were stuck onboard a delayed flight. Compensation increases as the length of delay increases, up to the full value of the round-trip ticket for ground delays of more than three hours on arrival or four hours on departure. Moreover, the airline would apply the policy retroactively, which will bring the cost of a week of delayed or cancelled flights to an estimated $30 million.

Whether JetBlue’s promise will overshadow the damage done to its image by last week’s shutdown is yet to be seen, but more important is that the company was willing to take this step on its own initiative. The demands of the marketplace are as compelling as any congressionally mandated reform. If such a bill of rights proves popular, JetBlue’s venture will pay off, and the bar it set may pressure other airlines to follow suit and adopt similar policies.

On the other hand, the many carriers that, despite improvements in recent months, face financial difficulties may not consider it a sound business decision. But the consumers’ response, which will be the most telling evaluation and the measure to which airlines will most eagerly react, should guide airline policy in this regard, not Congress. Therefore, it is a decision that can be left to airlines themselves, which — as JetBlue’s response to its meltdown demonstrated — do in fact self-regulate effectively when faced with the prospect of losing customers.

Saddling airlines with an industry-wide “passengers’ bill of rights” is a sweeping solution to a problem that is, in fairness, too limited to warrant it. JetBlue hardly escaped its Valentine’s Day meltdown unscathed; an airline that carved its niche by marketing itself as a passenger-friendly low-cost carrier certainly understands best the damage it brought on itself. And it also best understands how to prevent it from happening again.

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