How to End Airline
Meltdown Madness
SATURDAY, JANUARY 14, 2023 -- Travelers are never spoiled for choice. We even get to choose our meltdowns.

We can choose to fly an airline like Southwest, whose decades-old IT systems and operational practices have been outstripped by its current network and breakneck growth. Or we could shoot the moon and fly any carrier and wait for the FAA's Windows 3 era systems to collapse in a heap.

Oh, sure, you say, the choice of how your flights are massively delayed or cancelled isn't really a choice at all. Surely, you say, there must be a way to stop the meltdown madness.

And there is, at least when it comes to the self-created chaos that Southwest Airlines imposed on us during last month's holidays. Southwest in specific and the U.S. airline industry in general can and should be brought to heel.

We have the power through our regulatory agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration and its parent, the Department of Transportation. All that is required is that FAA and DOT bureaucrats do their jobs and stop cowering in fear of the very airlines they are meant to regulate for the public good.

Here's how I would do it. It's how the government should do it.

Anyone remember the Rule 240 fix available during the regulated days of flying? Rule 240 required all commercial carriers to "interline," which is industry jargon for buying you a ticket on another airline if the airline you booked cancelled or delayed your flight for hours. Interlining isn't routinely available anymore and Southwest Airlines specifically interlines with no other carrier. The DOT must mandate that all scheduled commercial carriers interline with each other. Would interlining have mitigated Southwest's meltdown? Of course not. But it would have ensured more flyers got to their destinations while Southwest was cancelling thousands of flights a day for more than a week.

In fairness to airline bosses, they don't personally raise fares when another carrier is having trouble. Their computers do it automatically, just as Uber's computers instantly impose surge pricing during periods of high demand. But airlines aren't Uber. Airlines have socialized their losses and privatized their earnings in every crisis this century. That's how they suckered the government into gifting them more than $50 billion during the pandemic. If airlines want to dump their losses on us when things are rotten, they must accept that we can limit their price-gouging during a crisis. The DOT should decree that the Transportation Secretary can impose price caps during a crisis like the Southwest meltdown.

An airline abruptly cancelling nearly 17,000 flights in a ten-day period is not something the national aviation system could easily absorb any time of the year. But Southwest's meltdown came during the end-of-year holidays, when virtually every seat operated by the carriers was already sold. Hence the horrific tales of passengers being told they couldn't be reaccommodated for days on end. And while I hate empowering government to interfere in the day-to-day workings of private businesses like airlines, I think our endless bailouts entitle us to something tangible. My suggestion: DOT-imposed capacity caps during designated periods of high occupancy such as Christmas/ New Year, Easter and Memorial Day weekend. The airlines and the DOT should work up a list of crucial days of extraordinary demand and then the DOT should impose a sales limit of 85% of systemwide capacity on those days. If things go south at least there would be some seats available to stranded flyers. I'm sorry airlines might lose some revenue with the caps, but endless taxpayer bailouts should buy us flexibility going forward.

I don't think airlines should bear all the burdens of eliminating meltdowns. The government needs to bend a little, too. The FAA has an inflexible series of duty-time limits for cabin crews. Their duty-time hours are strictly regulated by day, by month and by year. In a travel crisis, the FAA Administrator should be empowered to issue waivers for those limits. I don't think safety would be eroded if a pilot is permitted to fly an extra hour to keep flights in the air during a meltdown. Flight attendants might be allowed to work past their monthly duty limits if it helps an airline get back on schedule during a designated period of emergency. I could even see a scenario where the FAA Administrator allows a waiver of the rule that requires one flight attendant for every 50 seats. I do not make these suggestions lightly. We must be extremely circumspect and very careful about undermining safety. But the United States hasn't had a fatal commercial aircraft crash in nearly 14 years. Southwest stranded perhaps 2.5 million flyers in 10 days. I think a better balance on duty time could be struck for brief periods in a crisis situation.

The NOTAMs outage this week proved the FAA isn't genius at managing its own aging systems. And the FAA has been justifiably scrutinized for its sometimes-woeful inspection routines for aircraft. But the FAA is the instrument we have and we should use it. The government won't license a carrier to fly until it proves it is capable of flying. The FAA routinely (if haphazardly) inspects aircraft to ensure they remain airworthy. It should also exercise oversight of airline IT systems that control customer service and crew-scheduling. Every year, the FAA should require information about how back-of-the-house systems at airlines are keeping up with their route maps and passenger growth. Southwest would have been grounded years ago if the FAA maintained oversight of the carrier's dreadfully outdated tech. Yes, safety is job one. But what good is safety if an airline's technology is so archaic that it can't run the very aircraft it claims are safe to operate?

Airports suck at the municipal and federal teats for all sorts of funding. Moreover, they charge airlines metaphoric arms and legs for landing rights and other things. And, of course, they rake serious bank off the top whenever we buy a cup of coffee, a sandwich or even a newspaper at an airport concession. So if airports profit from its airlines and passengers, they must have rational contingency plans to fill gaps when there are airline meltdowns. The FAA and DOT should mandate specific plans to house stranded passengers in airport office or meeting spaces in a crisis. Airports must stockpile sufficient supplies of cots, pillows and blankets to go around. They should have contingency plans to feed stranded flyers for several days. (In Buffalo last month, when the snowstorm shut down the city and the airport, stranded flyers relied on fast-thinking restaurant employees and managers to feed them.) Airports must have access to emergency pharmacy services and, at larger facilities, be required to operate 24/7 on-site pharmacies. The government should lay out rules to allow airport managers to temporarily control on-property rental cars and hotel rooms during crisis periods to maximize efficient use and keep prices reasonable.

The sad fact is that more airline meltdowns--and more weather-related travel crises--are in our future. We can't make believe Southwest's holiday outage was an unknowable, unfathomable one-off event.

We deserve better from a system that profits mightily from our fees, fares and taxpayer dollars and then tries to evade responsibility when things get rotten.