Holiday Travel Tips: Over the River and Through the Woods

Each year, a whole new wave of travelers descends on America's air travel system for the Christmas and New Year's holidays--barely a month after they'd taxed the same system to the utmost at Thanksgiving. So it's time--right now, before the tsunami of passengers arrives yet again--to assess what suddenly seems to be going right, and what each traveler can do to make sure the upcoming season is as painless as possible.

Recently, airline travelers have been tempted by the lofty idea of a so-called "passenger bill of rights." The premise of this newly proposed legislature is that if Congress gets involved in the airline industry again, air travel will return to a much-desired level of normalcy. In fact, it may already be doing so.

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Instead, Christmas travelers need to follow a dozen or so simple "rules of the road"--or, skies--to smooth their passage through the system of airports, airliners and baggage facilities that will get them to grandmother's house on time and relatively hassle-free. These range from timing your trips, to properly layering your suitcase when you're packing it up, to watching the weather reports and printing your (online) boarding passes before you leave home.

If you follow these simple rules, I am deeply skeptical that a traveler's bill of rights is any kind of a bandwagon we need to jump on. The most compelling reason to shy away from this course of congressional action can be seen clearly by simply asking yourself: When has governmental bureaucracy been the answer to anything?

On the contrary to solving any current problems, government intervention will seismically disrupt an already fragile air system that is best solved by the airlines themselves. Despite conventional wisdom, flight delays and canceled flights are not in the best interests of airlines.

Believe me when I tell you it is no fun for the airlines' chief dispatchers to see flights sitting on the ground, awaiting clearance for take-off. Not only is it less than entertaining, it can be a costly proposition both in terms of real cost (including fuel and overtime), as well as the bad publicity and loss of future passengers.

If Congress has its way, airlines will be subject to regulations that would force planes back to the gates if runway delays exceed pre-established time limits. Setting arbitrary time limits for delayed flights will ultimately result in more flight cancellations, potentially snowballing into passengers not getting to their intended destinations for days on end.

Take, for example, an episode I experienced this past summer. I was sitting on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Memphis, when, minutes after we pulled away from the gate, the pilot announced that we would have a wait to take-off, and that he would keep us posted. Forty-five minutes later, while our plane was still sitting on the runway, the pilot announced that he was monitoring the situation and that he would turn back to the gate if the delay became too lengthy.

After another 45 minutes, thus equaling a total of an hour and a half runway waiting time, the pilot informed us that there was still a delay, and that he was going to head back to the gate. At this point, it was clear the pilot feared backlash from angry passengers sitting on the runway for too long.

However, during the entire hour and a half delay, the flight crew handed out water and snacks to both first class and coach passengers. When a group of passengers in the front of the plane, myself included, heard the pilot say he was turning back, we summoned a flight attendant to ask her to request that the pilot not turn back, as we had already waited a substantial amount of time, and we did not want to be stuck overnight in Atlanta.

Five minutes later, the pilot announced that a slot had opened up and we were ready for take-off. If the pilot had not had the discretion to remain on the runway, despite his fears of upsetting the passengers, a full plane of passengers would have been forced to spend the night in Atlanta--and, further complicating the issue, a full plane of passengers would have been trying to rebook on new flights, knowing most of the flights for the next day were already full.

When it comes to flight delays, the best people equipped to deal with the immediacy of the situation remain those in the trenches. Taking discretion away from pilots, air traffic controllers and airline dispatchers by imposing rules designated by Washington bureaucrats will mean a flight that could have had a possible take-off window open within five minutes would have been re-routed to its gate rather than getting its passengers on the way to their final destinations.

Government intervention will also mean increased cost to the consumers. The proposed "Bill of Rights" has airlines increasing payouts for canceled flights and bumping passengers. To pay the higher penalties, airlines will have no choice but to hedge their newly exposed liability by increasing fares, imposing tighter ticketing restrictions and requiring passenger to check in many hours before their flights. For example, some airlines are already requiring passengers to check their luggage a whopping 45 minutes before flight time as a "pledge" that they will make the flight. If a Passenger Bill of Rights is passed, restricting the airlines ability to operate, one can expect similar hardships to be passed on to passengers.

A government-mandated Passenger Bill of Rights will only serve political goodwill by placating ill-informed air travelers with a false sense of comfort. Additionally, the burdens placed on the airlines will carry over to air travelers, and ultimately result in a no-win situation for all involved. I hope, in the end, the intensely competitive market within the airline industry will be enough to propel airline executives to make the right decision to serve the consumer in a way that will promote customer satisfaction and loyalty.