Federal panel ponders airline regulation

As frustration with airlines rises over fees and other consumer issues, a federal advisory committee is discussing how big a role the government should play in regulating the industry.

The panel made a stop in Atlanta Wednesday, holding a lightly attended meeting at the Federal Aviation Administration's regional office in College Park.

The committee's discussion was more philosophical than specific, with member Severin Borenstein musing whether the airline industry -- which was deregulated in 1978 -- should be treated as a "public utility."

"If it is the case that it is a public utility, then we generally see the government as  actually managing the industry for the sake of its stakeholders," said Borenstein, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "If it's not a public utility, we generally don't see that as the role of the government."

‘We in my opinion should be continuing to pursue good public policy that frees the industry to operate as a capitalist industry . . .  subject to necessary but minimally invasive government regulation," Borenstein said.

But, said Bill McGee, a member of the committee and a consultant for Consumers Union, "airline passengers have rights, and they should be able to expect fair and reasonable treatment when they fly."

"Lately there has been much talk within the industry and even within this committee that unhappy passengers should ‘vote with their feet' and select another airline, as if such a thing were possible at 35,000 feet," McGee said.

The committee holds three more meetings in other cities this year and aims to make recommendations to the U.S. Transportation Secretary by the end of the year on how to ensure the competitiveness of the U.S. aviation industry.

The meetings come as the U.S. Department of Transportation takes public comments through Aug. 9 on its proposed passenger protection rules, including increasing compensation for passengers bumped from flights and expanding the scope of limits on lengthy tarmac delays.