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KAI RYSSDAL: I’m happy to say I made it to Michigan right on time this morning. Punctuality is one of the few joys of taking the redeye. Going home tomorrow afternoon could turn out quite the worse, though. According to the airline industry Friday is the start of the Thanksgiving travel rush — 27 million people are going to be flying next week. And the threat of an aviation meltdown has forced the president’s hand. At the White House today the president announced he’s going to open up what are essentially express lanes in the air over military bases along the heavily travelled East Coast. He’s ordered a holiday moratorium on FAA maintenance projects to help more flights stay on schedule. Oh, and he wants some long-term regulatory changes too. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports.
JOHN DIMSDALE: By next summer, President Bush wants to double the compensation airlines must pay to passengers who are bumped from overbooked flights. A customer forced to wait more than two hours, for example, would receive a minimum of $800.
PRESIDENT BUSH: We want people who are responsible for moving passengers to understand that there will be consequences for these delays. All aiming to get the system to work better.
During the first eight months of the year, more than 52,000 U.S. passengers were involuntarily bumped from overbooked flights. The airlines say overbookings are a necessary part of their business. Susan Elliott is with Delta Airlines.
SUSAN ELLIOTT: We need to be able to overbook flights because thousands of people don’t show up for our flights every day. Now of course 99 percent of the time we do get it right. But on the rare occasions we get it wrong we do our best to accommodate those passengers, and we don’t feel that an increased fee is an appropriate action.
Overbookings are one way airlines fill their seats with passengers. Jonathan Spira, a contributing editor with Business Traveler magazine, doubts doubling the penalty will be much of a disincentive.
JONATHAN SPIRA: I think that the airlines will see this as just part of the cost of doing business and will factor this in to the cost to the flying public.
Spira says that won’t boost ticket prices much because most passengers voluntarily give up seats in exchange for free tickets later. For a longer term solution, the Bush administration wants a modernized air traffic control system, and higher fees on airlines that use airports and air space during peak congested periods.
In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.
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