Fear of Flying: Where are the Market Solutions?

Anyone who flies knows that the experience has been deteriorating for years. The problem isn’t just a lost glamor; basic necessities are getting jettisoned:

Since late December, we have heard of literally dozens of incidents in which passengers were stuck on parked airplanes, unable to get off for four, six and even 10 hours. Typically, food and water were scarce, and often, the toilets started backing up after a few hours. [One] flight attendant . . . said that when a plane is delayed or stuck for hours on the ground, it is the passengers’ responsibility not to eat or drink, to avoid overtaxing the toilets.

Great advice for diabetics. Anyway, after the JetBlue’s Valentine’s Day disaster, outraged passengers lobbied Capitol Hill for some guarantees of food, water, and reasonable responsiveness to stuck passengers. (They appear to have some chance of succeeding.) The industry and anti-regulation gurus responded that such rules would put too heavy a burden on an struggling industry.

My question is: has market competition for humane passenger conditions begun to emerge? Are airplanes competing on enforceable promises not to, say, expose trans-Atlantic passengers to sewage? Or is this an area where competition is simply unable to emerge, since no one is really going to pick through the (invariably one-sided) contractual terms applicable to a given flight?

I suppose I will be accused of trying to price the poor out of airflight, in order to preserve “Cadillac-level” service for the rich. Perhaps I’m just too risk-averse. But I predict more and more people would rather just stay home than even face a small chance of the types of indignities, delays, and rough treatment now becoming commonplace in the “friendly skies.”

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