The modern airline industry provides many valuable services to society, including the regular validation of certain lesser-known scientific laws, such as this Beltway variation of Newton's third law of motion: If an action produces a reaction from Congress, it won't be "equal and opposite."
We're about to see a demonstration of this principle on two fronts: tarmac delays and a la carte pricing.
Tarmac delays might never go away, but the issue had slipped to the back burner in recent months. Congress was still considering legislation to regulate tarmac delays, but the monthly delay reports from the DOT didn't look too terrible. It was beginning to look like the airlines might get their act together and dodge the bullet.
All that changed when ExpressJet, a regional carrier flying for Continental, parked a diverted flight overnight at Rochester, Minn., with 47 passengers aboard because, it would seem, nobody at ExpressJet or at Continental quite knew what to do.
Now every politician in America is committed to making sure this doesn't happen again, and that means we're almost certain to get a law from Congress or a regulation from the DOT, or maybe both. And no matter how wisely or badly drafted these measures might be, the airlines will claim that they are unnecessary and burdensome.
The airlines might be right, but with the ExpressJet incident they've forfeited whatever high ground they ever had. The airlines will claim, with indignation, that no other industries are singled out for this kind of regulatory micromanagement, but the airlines should be asking themselves why that is.
Could it be because few other industries treat people quite this badly?
The congressional reaction to the tarmac incident was predictable and very straightforward. The buzz that's developing around a la carte pricing is a little more subtle.
Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Public Works and Transportation Committee, is a transportation geek, to put it bluntly, and he doesn't miss much.
What Oberstar and some others have noted is that every time the airlines unbundle a dollar from the ticket price, whether it's for baggage, meal service or an aisle seat, there's one less dollar subject to the ticket tax.
Funds for airport improvements and the air traffic control system are generated, in part, by a tax on airline tickets. Onboard revenue, such as for headsets or other in-flight purchases, weren't taxed, but until recently that didn't matter much because most things were bundled into the fare.
Today, however, the airlines are generating billions in revenue from various fees and charges that escape the ticket tax because they aren't shown on the ticket.
Nobody is accusing the airlines of engaging in a la carte pricing merely to escape the tax man, but even the slowest airline managers have figured out that when they collect a dollar at the airport, as opposed to collecting it from the ticket, they get to keep more of it.
Oberstar has asked the Government Accountability Office to look into this issue and suggest ways that Uncle Sam can "capture" its share of this revenue for the aviation trust fund.
It's early yet, but we have a feeling that Oberstar is setting the stage for a battle the airlines can't possibly win.
Caesar has a way of getting what's his.