Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
Five Ways the Feds Can Fix Air Travel Right Now
July 9, 2015 --When news broke last week that the U.S. Justice Department was investigating the nation's four largest carriers for collusion, talking heads immediately started bellowing platitudes.

The airlines American, United, Delta and Southwest have the milk of human kindness in their corporate veins and never could, ever would do anything evil, proffered the industry's Wagnerian-voiced defenders. The four carriers which now control 80 percent of the nation's traffic think they rule the earth and the sky and treat travelers like dominated fools, retorted self-appointed consumer activists.

Both sides make fatuous arguments, of course. Airline defenders are at pains to explain how four carriers independently decided to restrain capacity and keep fares high despite plunging oil prices. And airline detractors will never be able to explain why discretionary travelers continue to buy and fly rather than stay home or use alternate means of transportation.

More to the point, though, neither side knows exactly what the Justice Department is investigating, how long the inquiry will last and what potential remedies the government might eventually suggest. Bottom line: Words! Words! Words! It's okay to be sick of them because they won't change your travel next week, next month or, more likely than not, next year.

Sadly, what follows is all words, too. But rather than bloviate on what Justice might do some time in the unknown future, I have five practical suggestions that regulators could implement now to make travel better for we fair ladies and gentlemen who live our lives on the road.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) insists it doesn't have the right to regulate airfares. But it can regulate how airlines advertise prices. In fact, the agency has struggled for years with a definition of "fares" now that airlines have stripped everything from checked bags to seat assignments from the basic cost of transport.

Without changing how much airlines choose to charge, the DOT could easily level the playing field for confused fliers by requiring all airlines to advertise what we might call the "fair flight cost." What's the fair flight cost? The price of transportation from point A to point B plus the cost of the essentials: one checked bag; all carry-on bags; a seat assignment; one itinerary change; and any required booking fees. Airlines may choose to charge whatever they wish for the transportation and the add-ons, but they would be required to advertise a bundled, consistent price so travelers could compare the real cost of flying.

Create minimum seat standards

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a dizzying collection of rules covering the transportation of animals used in our food. Don't you find it odd that there are standards for how much space cattle must receive as they head to a slaughterhouse, but there are no similar protections for us when we fly?

In their drive to maximize profits, airlines continue to slash the legroom at our seats and to squeeze more chairs into each row. This would all be madness if it were simply a matter of passenger comfort. But more and more observers believe planes stuffed with tightly pitched seats and cramped rows will cost lives in an emergency because passengers won't be able to evacuate aircraft quickly enough.

The DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should intervene on safety grounds. Just as cattle have minimum space standards, travelers need to be assured their flights are safe and relatively comfortable. At least 32 inches of legroom and 18-inch wide seats is sane and airlines shouldn't be permitted to offer less.

End 'joint ventures' and 'antitrust immunity'

For reasons known only to Justice Department apparachiks and DOT regulators, dozens of U.S. carriers and international airlines operate joint ventures that have been immunized against antitrust violations. One example: American Airlines and British Airways, the dominant carriers between the United States and Great Britain, are allowed to coordinate prices, flights and schedules between the two countries. The inevitable outcome? Higher fares, fewer seats and poorer service.

Why are supposed competitors allowed to legally conspire to restrain market forces solely to maximize profits? It's bad business and should be stopped. All joint-venture deals and anti-trust immunity between carriers should be ended and free-market competition restored.

Eliminate code-shares operations

Half of domestic flights marketed by the three largest U.S. airlines (American and its US Airways subsidiary, United and Delta) aren't even operated by those carriers. Instead, nearly invisible "commuter" carriers operate the flights. And they contract with the big airlines based almost solely on price: the cheaper they fly and the less they pay employees, the more likely they are to get the business. It's much the same internationally, as the immunized airlines slap each other's names and computer codes on flights they do not run.

If government regulators are serious about creating a level playing field in commercial aviation, code-shares should be outlawed. We don't need airlines masquerading as something they aren't and making believe there's more choice than there really is.

Stop slot swaps

You could make the case that airlines don't need to actively collude since they dominate so many "fortress" hubs at major airports. According to DOT figures, for example, Delta controls 80 percent of the traffic at Atlanta. Ditto for American in Miami. And United handles about 60 percent of traffic at Newark.

It's probably impossible to break up these fortress operations, but they shouldn't be encouraged and DOT and Justice have done just that in recent years. Several years ago, for example, it permitted Delta and US Airways to swap assets at New York's LaGuardia and Washington's Reagan National airports. The result? Delta is now by far the largest carrier at LaGuardia and American, the successor to US Airways, is three times larger than any other airline at National Airport.

Regulators should put the kibosh on these uncompetitive asset plays and they can start by denying a new request by United and Delta. The carriers hope to swap slots in the New York region. United would get some of Delta's Newark assets, thus making its dominant position there even stronger. In exchange Delta would get United's slots at New York's Kennedy Airport, where Delta is already the largest of the three major airline players.

This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.