Truth and Legroom

While Chatterbox wasn’t paying attention, regulation of air travel became a major political issue. Vice President Al Gore will today unveil an airline passengers’ bill of rights; Sen. John McCain, who’s running for the Republican presidential nomination, has a similar bill before Congress; and Bud Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation committee, is on the warpath. Chatterbox, who tends to be unfashionably pro-regulation when it comes to health and safety issues, wondered: Are airline crashes on the increase? Apparently not. Are air fares soaring out of control? Not really. So what’s the problem? Well, there isn’t enough legroom, because air carriers are buying smaller jets. Chatterbox, who always flies coach, would be happy to accept more legroom from the airlines if they offered it for free. But of course that isn’t going to happen: If legroom increases, so will the price of an airline ticket. Another fake problem that politicians are fuming over is that pilots occasionally fib to passengers about the reasons for diverted flights. An amusing Page One article in today’s Wall Street Journal relates how Shuster stormed into the cockpit of a plane being diverted from Pittsburgh to Ohio after he phoned his staff and found out that the Pittsburgh airport wasn’t really closed. “Why did you tell us it was?” Shuster asked the pilot, who confessed that the real problem was that he didn’t have enough fuel to circle the Pittsburgh airport while a storm passed through the area. “That’s fine,” Shuster said. (Whew!) “But why didn’t you shoot straight with the people?” “Because,” one can well imagine the pilot saying, “powerful jerks like you might have complained to my boss that I wouldn’t let you land in Pittsburgh, and next time something like this came up I’d be pressured to compromise safety. Now shut up, sit down, and let me land this plane!”

Wednesday Afternoon Addendum: Okay, Gore has now announced the Clinton administration’s new “airline passenger fair treatment initiative,” and Chatterbox is pleased to report that it doesn’t mandate expanded legroom. However, it does impose a lot of chickenshit requirements on air carriers. Airlines would have to disclose their policies toward provision of food, water, and restroom facilities during ground delays. They would also have to disclose to the Transportation department, on a monthly basis, the number of complaints they receive from customers in 15 categories. People who got bumped from overbooked flights, or whose luggage was lost, would get higher minimum payments from the airlines. And so on. Chatterbox does not in principle object to what conservatives deride as the “Nanny State,” and he certainly respects every American’s God-given right to pee. But Chatterbox also thinks the Nanny State has more important things to worry about, like whether airplanes are going to combust spontaneously on takeoff. This I-want-to-speak-to-the-manager approach to governing is no substitute for the real thing.

–Timothy Noah