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Overall, airline deregulation has been a good thing. Passengers have more flight choices, fares have plummeted from their pre-1978 levels.

But no one can deny the fact that customer experience seems to be lacking when it comes to air travel. Lately, we have had a string of incidents that highlight many areas of mismanagement and extremely poor handling of customer service issues by airlines.

Would greater regulation solve the problem?

Forbes ran an article this week detailing 6 changes to increase regulation in the airline industry that would potentially solve the woes of many airline customers. My reaction to the list is mixed. I will freely admit that I’m a firm believer in letting the free market determine business behavior. Let consumers vote with their dollars. The free market allows innovation to be rewarded and poor service to be penalized.

Yet I do see a least a nugget of potential in some of the regulations and suggestions posed. Here are my take on the six:

Regulating congested or “premium” airports

Many heavily-traveled airports are funded by tax dollars, whether by direct bond measure or through tax breaks. The argument here is that because taxpayers have essentially funded these airports, there should be minimum standards of comfort. Most of these airports are located in heavily populated areas, so enacting regulations on passenger comfort would potentially affect many people.

However, adding regulations that are unique to each airport could wreak havoc on airline operations. Imagine for a moment if all jets flying in or out of Newark were required to have 32″ or greater seat pitch. If an aircraft is delayed or requires maintenance, finding a suitable replacement may not be possible if not all aircraft are equipped with the necessary pitch to meet the airport standards.

The cascading effect might be airlines changing the seat pitch so that al aircraft can operate at all airports. The issue here is that it would make them less efficient, thereby driving up fares. Would people be willing to pay a bit more for a guaranteed level of comfort? Possibly. But there are others who simply want to get from point A to point B as cheaply as possible. There are already choices for people who want increased comfort. It’s called flying Virgin America instead of Spirit.

While the idea of minimum regulated comfort sounds good in theory, I hope it remains a theory. I don’t want to see it put into practice.

Through-checking baggage for itineraries on separate tickets

Man, this would be phenomenal. Requiring airlines to through-check baggage at the request of passengers on itineraries with multiple tickets would add a whole new dimension to finding deals on fares. If I found a cheap ticket from San Francisco to Chicago on United, then another ticket from Chicago to Cincinnati, and have it come out cheaper than simply booking a ticket from SFO to CVG, United would be required to through check my baggage.

This would allow passengers greater flexibility when shopping for tickets. It would also save them money on bag fees. Personally, I think this is a great idea. The impact on airline systems shouldn’t be great, and it is only a boon for passengers.

Booking passengers with competitors during irregular operations

If I’m not mistaken, this used to be far more common in the past than it is now. If your United flight was canceled because of operational issues, the airline may have been so kind as to rebook you on American. Pre-1978, this was actually mandated by law.

Now airlines won’t book you on anything except their own flights, even if it means you travel literally days later (SEE: The huge problem flying Frontier). We’ve seen a few crazy operational meltdowns in the past several months.

Requiring airlines to fly you on competitors is a step back toward the pre-deregulation days. It would greatly increase the cost to the airline when things go awry, and would certainly increase fares across the board. However, it would guarantee (for the most part) that passengers arrive at their destination much sooner.

Providing lodging and meal vouchers during lengthy delays

This used to be a part of airline operations. I remember flying solo to the East Coast at 16 years old, back in 2005. Weather over Atlanta caused me to miss my connection with Delta, and I got stuck in Hartsfield-Jackson overnight while waiting for the next flight back to Sacramento. A Delta agent offered me both a hotel voucher and a meal voucher for the night (although I couldn’t accept the hotel voucher since I was still a minor).

Now the airlines won’t offer anything. The article argues that they should.

If airlines were required to provide accommodations during overnight delays, it would certainly help travelers. But at what cost? Everyone who buys a ticket would end up footing some of the bill, as hotel rooms aren’t exactly free.

Holding CEOs accountable during problems

I’m not sure how we could ever enforce this, or honestly what the use would be. The article argues that CEOs should provide an update every 3 hours during major operational issues. The argument here is to promote transparency, along with inclining the CEOs to have better plans in place.

Overall, I’m really not sure how I feel about this sure about this suggestion, as it seems pretty benign.

Create an environment that safeguards good employees

You’d think that providing great customer experience would be the goal of any service industry. Obviously, an airline is in the business to make money, but providing a good customer experience should be (in theory) high on the list. Evidence suggests that it really isn’t…

The article argues for additional protections for employees that go the extra mile for customers, even if it means bending or breaking airline policies.

Conclusion

The author ends by ensuring us that this isn’t a call for re-regulation of the airlines, but that these are simply suggestions that would “provide a better industry for workers and customers as well as management and shareholders.”

The result of many of the suggestions would certainly be a better customer experience. But we would undoubtedly see an increase in fares.

What is your take on some of these suggested regulations?  Let us know in the comments

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