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Why not rights for travelers?
Americans should define freedom in their lives, not give it away in advance
For a nation that talks so much about freedom, we Americans do a very bad job at defining and demanding our rights. Every time we enter an airport, for example, we invite private companies to treat us badly.
Why shouldn't travelers have rights? Rights begin from human beings and from human situations, such as travel. None of us can get where we need to go without help. We depend upon private corporations, such as airlines, to handle a great deal of the travel that we undertake. There is nothing wrong with this. What is wrong is that we take for granted that those companies treat us like cargo.
A few weeks ago I had embarked on a trip with my son to visit his aging grandparents, whom he hasn't seen for almost two years. We had made the plans months in advance. Everyone was very excited about the trip. Thanks to crumbling American infrastructure, the trip from New Haven to La Guardia airport in New York was long and bumpy, but we were excited to be there. La Guardia itself is under permanent construction, but we did get to the right terminal.
Once we checked in to our Delta flight and passed through security, it was hard to smile our way through the next scene. There were lines snaking everywhere. They were so long that it was impossible to walk in a straight line from any one point to another. It seemed like a situation designed to spread disease. The gate areas were full, with people sitting or lying in the hallways. In this terminal, Delta has two area that it is pleased to call "lounges"; both of these, too, had long lines to enter. People were paying for the privilege to wait in a special line with other people who had paid extra for their tickets. It was like a parody of the American dream: you claw your way to the top, only to find out that the door is closed, and what is on the other side is actually not worth waiting for.
Flights were delayed and cancelled, but there were no audible announcements. No human being was taking responsibility for anything. Although my son and I were physically at the airport, this gave us no particular edge in figuring out what was going on. According to the email bulletins I received, our flight was delayed, then delayed again, then departing on time, then delayed. It was my child's grandmother, in another state, who first got the news that our flight was cancelled. She learned of this over the internet before the flight was listed as cancelled on the departures board at the airport. But she was right: there was indeed no flight. No announcement was made, and no reason was given. People were just expected to accept the situation and figure out for themselves what came next.
I texted Delta's automatic system and explained the situation and asked for help. I got the immediate response "No problem!" That was weeks ago, and nothing followed from that chipper robotic reply. It took about two hours on the phone to get anything at all fixed. I know that there is nothing special about this situation. It is completely normal in America to be facelessly exploited. That is the problem.
As we exited the terminal to look for a cab, I took in the scene one last time. There were thousands of people here, many of them no doubt with excellent reasons to fly. There were people, like us, who felt an overwhelming need to see family, and who were willing to risk catching covid in order to do so. Throughout the epidemic, I had never been in a place (except hospitals) where the risk of actually catching the disease appeared so high. It was impossible to maintain social distance. Most people wore masks, but many did not. And we were all inside together, hour after hour. My son and I tested ourselves when we got back to New Haven; neither of us had been in any such situation before, and we knew the risks. But given the scarcity and expense of home testing in the United States, I assume almost no one else did the same.
No one in that swarming mass got where they wanted to go. But it is hard to resist the painful thought that some of them, unwittingly, had exposed themselves to a disease that would kill them or others they knew.
In the cab, I asked myself why Americans allow themselves to be treated in this way. So often, in practice, it seems like we talk about freedom as an excuse not to have rights.
In the European Union no scenario like this is possible, because in the practical situation of airline travel people actually do have rights. Airline passengers departing from European Union airports have a bill of rights (this includes you, whether or not you are a citizen of a European Union country). Airlines have to inform passengers what is happening. If a flight is cancelled, passengers are not only reimbursed, they are also compensated for their trouble: they are paid between between 250 and 600 euros depending upon the length of their flight (article 7). If a flight is delayed or a passenger has to be rebooked on a later flight, the airline is responsible for making sure that the passenger is fed, that the passenger gets a hotel room, and that the passenger is transported to and from the hotel (article 9). If you are American, compare this to what your own government offers you: "Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements." People in American airports, in other words, don't count; travelers have no rights.
We wouldn't think of asking for compensation or lodging from an airline, would we? But it would be good for all of us if we did. Aside from addressing our convenience and our dignity, an American bill of rights for airline passengers would incentivize American airlines not to behave badly. If they can cancel flights at their convenience, they will, and they do. If they pay a price for treating their passengers badly, they will stop treating their passengers badly. That is how markets work best: with good rules.
If you are brainwashed by American talk of the "free market," you might find it natural to be abused by companies. You might believe that their rights are more important than yours, or that only governments can violate rights. That is submissive, self-oppressive nonsense. A right begins from a person. It can be violated by other people or by any institution. Our problem is that we Americans, as a people, are just not very good at imagining what our rights might be. The way to start is by concentrate on everyday situations where we find ourselves without rights. And then to name those rights and make them real. As the Europeans have. And, for that matter, as the Canadians also have.
Rights for travelers should be easy. And yet we fail. Americans give away our rights in advance, by failing to see that we have them.