Airlines as FAA Customers?

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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.

Comments (7)

The 6-hour Rochester situation requiring the act of Congress was due to... problems with a previous act of Congress (the TSA)? There's irony there somewhere.

Posted by: Mike Holshouser | September 21, 2009 6:27 PM    Report this comment

It's not at all clear to me that declaring an emergency would have had any effect whatsoever. The problem, as I understand it, was that the station manager for Mesaba steadfastly refused to do anything about the situation despite the insistence of several entities that something be done. If someone is going to be that pigheaded, I don't really see how the declaration of an emergency helps matters or even makes any difference.

It's my understanding that this individual has been severely disciplined (possibly demoted), but not simply fired, which I will never understand. There is simply no excuse for this sort of behaviour, and if the airlines won't fire people for this level of incompetence, what is it going to take? Acts of sabotage?


Posted by: Chris Lawson | September 22, 2009 12:12 AM    Report this comment

You have NO idea.

ROC was nothing new. I have pulled into the ramp and found one, only one gate occupied. Guess which one I was to park at?
When there was no movement around the aircraft that was already there, I asked Operations what he was waiting for.
"Twelve connecting passengers from FLL."
You get two guesses where I was coming from, but you'll only need one.
When I explained this, that the passengers in question were on my airplane and we'd all sit until the wings rotted off if they didn't find me another gate. I was informed that was my gate, period.
So, I used my cell phone to call the Duty Manager in our Company's Operations (different city) and explained the situation to him. After some ten minutes more I finally got another gate.
The biggest problem for the public that they don't know about is the CMOs.
They are in bed with said airlines and, as was sent to me by our management, "are pretty lenient when they self-disclose". So, the FAA would rather go after a pilot than jump on a company for an endemic operational issue.
I'm no fan of Babbitt, but at least he flies. They should all be required to be pilots (and/or mechanics if that's what they regulate) and current and qualified.
I could go on for pages, but I'll close with a statement that was told me by an FAA enforcement action attorney once, "it's not our fault if our people can't fill the paperwork out right".
Must be nice to be cop, judge, and jury and then not have to follow due process.

Posted by: John Hyle | September 23, 2009 6:39 AM    Report this comment

Pardon me if I sound confused, but I thought I just read "47 passengers were held in the airplane for six hours because no one was available from the TSA to clear them into the terminal." These were passengers on a US airline, Continental, which landed as a result of an in-flight weather diversion in a US city. Could you please explain why someone would have to clear the passengers INTO the terminal?

I might have been less confused if they had been allowed to deplane and were allowed to leave the terminal building why they would have to be cleared through security into the terminal before reboarding for the continuation of their flight, but into the terminal from the flight?

I've known for a long time that the TSA rule makers were a bit warped, but the person who devised that rule should be carted off to an asylum because they seriously need psychiatric help.

Oh, and by the way, what does any of this have to do with the FAA? The FAA and TSA are separate and independent human enterprises. To mention the TSA in an article about changes in the FAA seems to imply that the FAA has some control over the TSA. I'm firmly convinced that no-one has control over the TSA, least of all the FAA. I have friends in the FAA whom I'd hate to see tarred with the same brush the TSA is busy tarnishing their own reputation with.

Posted by: William Harper | September 23, 2009 10:40 PM    Report this comment

1. Paul may lump GA in with the general public (as would I) but I'll guarantee you the FAA doesn't. We GA types are no more the FAA's "customer" than is United or Delta, and since the part about "promoting aviation" was removed from their mission statement years ago, we too can count on progressively more onerous and restrictive regulation in the future.
2. Re the Continental RJ imprisonment, ultimately it was the captain's fault. After a reasonable length of time trying to negotiate with Continental's dispatchers (who played a major role in it) she could have - and should have - simply said "F.. it. I'm opening the doors." Had I been a passenger on that RJ, I might have done it myself after three hours.
3. Did the possibility that crew duty time keeps accumulating (and the paycheck keeps growing) until the cabin door opens have any influence on her decision? Probably not, but who knows?

Posted by: warford johnson 11 | September 24, 2009 11:40 AM    Report this comment

It is the job of terroism to terrorize. Homeland Security has done its' level best to structure a system that makes fear their job security. The TSA, with outlandish regulations, is doing the same. I hope the FAA's overhaul corrects some of the issues that outrage the public.

Posted by: Larry Fries | September 24, 2009 12:47 PM    Report this comment

While many problems with the concept of "customer service" erode the flying public's opinion of the airlines, there is another specter doing more than its share to keep the flames burning.
The last time I looked, all passengers are required to pass through the TSA's gauntlet before being worthy and safe to fly. Did the flight in to Rochester gain a potential terrorist or two enroute? Did some passenger stand in the cabin and declare himself a Muslim somewhere along the way?
Yes, the airlines must be held accountable and retrained in the basics of customer service. But let the TSA, a knee jerk reactive organization at best, return to where it was prior to 9/11. Nonexistent and out of the way.

Posted by: Jud Phillips | September 24, 2009 4:02 PM    Report this comment

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