The Transportation Department has published a long list of possible enhancements to its consumer regulations that gives everybody something to do.
Consumer advocates will like most of it and might clamor for more. Free-market fans who fear the cost and consequences of creeping government micromanagement are likely shaking their heads, or sharpening their knives.
We find ourselves in the middle.
Extending the tarmac delay rule to more airports and to the operations of foreign airlines is a good idea, as are the proposals to increase the denied-boarding compensation for bumped passengers and to extend the overbooking rule to smaller aircraft.
It also makes great sense for the DOT to streamline its jury-rigged advertising policy to state that advertised airfares must include all mandatory taxes, fees and service charges, rather than allowing some (but not all) taxes to be stated separately.
We're also sold on the idea of requiring airlines to incorporate their tarmac procedures and other customer service policies into their contracts of carriage, so they are legally binding.
And on a related question of legal procedures, we can only cheer the prospect that the DOT will kill the odious language in many airline contracts of carriage that effectively states, "If you want to sue us, you have to do it in the courthouse around the corner from our headquarters, nowhere else."
Air transport is a mature industry. The airlines do business in all 50 states and should be able to defend themselves in any court of competent jurisdiction where they do business.
But as well-intentioned as these and other DOT proposals might be, we fear the DOT may be overreaching here and there. Throughout the 84-page document that explains these proposals, one finds phrases such as "we believe consumers would be better served," "passengers will be better informed" and "this will help ensure."
There are not many references to systematic abuses or widespread consumer injuries, or to data about legal proceedings or consumer complaints that might indicate that this problem is worse than that problem.
Rather, we seem to have a wish list of proposals that will make a whole lot of things "better."
There's nothing wrong with "better," but when it comes from the heavy hand of government regulation, we always have to ask, "How much better, for how many people, and at what cost?"
The DOT can't give all consumers perfect knowledge of all their options and perfect access to all their defenses in the world of air travel any more than the Federal Trade Commission can give us perfect knowledge for buying cars or cellphones. But it seems to us that some parts of this package attempt to do just that, without full attention to all the costs and benefits.
The DOT, for example, devotes several pages to alternate ways of putting a value on frequent flyer award tickets when such ticketholders are involuntarily bumped from oversold flights. Ordinarily, such passengers are entitled to the value of the ticket, in cash if they want it. But if the ticket was not purchased, there's no cash value.
The DOT approached this as an area that "needs further improvement." No doubt it does, but is the problem so severe that it requires federal intervention?
We don't think the DOT can right every wrong, and we don't think it should try.
This column appeared in the June 7 issue of Travel Weekly.