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The free-enterprise pendulum has swung too far, and it is time for the government to step in to provide more protection for travelers.

For openers, the government should impose stringent rules to ensure that passengers are not separated from their luggage. During the lost-luggage fiasco in the Midwest and Northeast over the Christmas weekend, newspaper reports made it sound as though the sole cause was bad weather. However, I happened to have a firsthand view of the situation as I tried to assist relatives on their way from Florida to visit us in Ohio, and I can say that stupidity and arrogance on the part of airline personal compounded the problem far beyond what would have been caused by weather alone. Most luggage today has routing tags with bar codes that can be read by computer. Utilized properly, these codes prevent luggage from being lost. There is no reason checked baggage should be swallowed by a black hole as it was during the Holiday weekend.

During the Christmas fiasco, airline management was unprepared for bad weather. Then airline employees seemed to be indifferent to passenger travails. The problem was especially acute when passengers had to change planes for connecting flights.

When a connecting flight was cancelled, ticket agents booked passengers on alternative flights without any attempt to put luggage on the same plane. It was simply stored at the connecting airport for days on end or routed in haphazard fashion. Passengers were lucky to get their bags before they were on their way home again. When passengers elected to finish their trips via ground transportation, airline employees refused to retrieve their luggage for them. Passengers often had only the clothes on their backs as they spent Christmas visiting relatives in a distant city. Many were stranded in a strange city without luggage the entire holiday weekend.

Ticket agents viewed stranded passengers as "problems." They solved these "problems" by rebooking passengers and telling them their bags would promptly catch up with them in the arrival cities. In most cases, that was a boldfaced lie. But it was the way agents passed their problems along to airline employees at the destination cities. Clearly, airlines should be forced to put a high priority on not separating passengers from their checked luggage.

While this was happening, limitations on crew duty cycles caused even more cancelled flights. Current duty cycles are far too limiting, especially since pilots can occasionally leave the cockpit, walk around, drink coffee, and otherwise relieve their fatigue.

Another regulation that should be imposed on airlines is a prohibition of pricing by means of yield management. That is the system that puts you in the middle seat with a $600 fare, while people on either side of you ride for $90. Every seat on any given flight should have the same price tag.

That would result in fewer people flying, but it also would force airlines to scale their operations to a level that makes sense economically. Yield management has simply sent the airlines on a maniacal quest for market share which, in turn, has filled airplanes with $99 travelers who don't cover the cost of transporting them. This pricing scheme has turned airlines into elephantine operations that cannot be managed profitably.

Finally, airlines should be forced to honor frequent-flyer awards without blackout dates and limits on the number of award seats per aircraft. Granted, airlines legally can do anything they want to with their award programs. But when the programs were initiated, there was an implied good-faith agreement that points would actually be redeemable. If you have ever tried to redeem points for a free flight or even an upgrade, you know the process, as now implemented, can be aggravating and infuriating.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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