Airlines as FAA Customers?
In the free enterprise system which we all enjoy in the U.S., it's almost an article of faith that profit-driven companies that answer to the bottom line and market forces can deliver goods and services more efficiently than government can. Sometimes that's true, sometimes it isn't. A recent example of the latter is the slow speed train wreck of Lockheed-Martin taking over the flight service system. We keep hearing rumors that the FAA is so unhappy with this arrangement that it's going to take the job back. When we asked FAA administrator Randy Babbitt about this at Oshkosh, he said the rumors were just that, which means I won't be the slightest bit surprised if FSS does go back to the FAA.
Government bureaucrats love to pick up buzzwords and during the late 1990s, when privatization was gaining ground, we heard them utter absurdities like "voice of the customer" and "stakeholder" and "ownership." These sound stupid enough when uttered by the business people who invented them, but coming from a government official, they're ludicrous. It looks like Babbitt may agree, for last week he made it clear that the only customers the FAA has is the flying public, not the airlines. Painting with a broad brush, I lump general aviation in with the flying public. The FAA doesn't have nor should it have a vendor/customer relationship with the industry. Its job is to oversee and regulate and, to a degree, keep the profit motive from unreasonably eroding safety.
The passenger rights groups are hailing Babbitt's pronouncement as a step forward and they argue that the FAA ought to completely remove the word "customer" from its lexicon. They're right. The FAA can certainly try to run itself as efficiently as the best businesses do, but it shouldn't pretend to have a customer relationship with the entities it regulates. The very use of the word contaminates the relationship for, as we all know, the customer is supposed to be always right.
One thing the passenger groups want the FAA to regulate is the airlines' propensity to keep passengers trapped in a jet for hours on end because of weather delays or gate unavailability. There have been a handful of highly publicized incidents, the most recent of which occurred in Rochester, Minnesota in August. A Continental RJ was diverted due to weather and 47 passengers were held in the airplane for six hours because no one was available from the TSA to clear them into the terminal. The lavs backed up, there was no water or food…you know the deal.
In that particular incident, I don't quite understand why the crew didn't simply declare an emergency to get those people off the airplane. Or, failing that, get on the phone with dispatch and not get off until something was done, even if it took a call to the airline's CEO who, I am quite sure, would have fixed the problem forthwith, for the PR value alone. My guess is that airlines have gotten more savvy in avoiding these incidents, but the Rochester case shows they're not avoiding them entirely.
A bill is circulating in Congress that would establish a passenger bill of rights, among them the right not to be held captive on a parked airplane for more than three hours. And that brings us full circle. If the privatization concept argues that corporations are so good at providing services efficiently, why does it take an act of Congress to keep an airline from shackling passenger to their seats for six hours?
Having been at the pointy end of a few airplanes himself, maybe Randy Babbitt is asking the same question.