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Seven Simple Ways to Fix Air Travel for Everyone

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Man getting poked in the eye by paper plane.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on February 25, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, airport, baggage, Carl Unger, flight cancellation, flight delay, frequent flyer, health and safety, mileage earning, mileage redemption, security, taxes and fees, tsa.

The airline industry is broken. That much we know.

Airlines may have righted themselves financially since the recession, but much of their success has come at the consumers' expense, in the form of rampant and escalating fees, reduced price competition from mergers, and generally diminished intangibles such as service and "value."

No one can wave a magic wand and fix the airline industry overnight. But even small steps are nevertheless worth taking and, when put together, might just bring about significant change. Don't think so? Read on to see how seven simple steps could improve air travel for everyone.

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1. Issue Refunds for Lost or Delayed Bags

If you pay for something, you should get it. Bag fees are no different. When a customer spends the $20 to $30 to check a bag, that fee is paid with the expectation that said bags will arrive on time, intact, at the appropriate destination. When bags are late or lost, the fee should be refunded by the airline. It's a simple act of fairness that would go a long way toward restoring consumer confidence.

Not surprisingly, few airlines have initiated any such policy. Alaska Airlines is a notable exception, but even its compensation rules could be improved. Here's Alaska's policy:

If your baggage is not at baggage claim within 20 minutes of your plane parking at the gate, you're entitled to a $20 Discount Code for use on a future Alaska Airlines or Horizon Air flight or 2,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan bonus miles.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) included in its recent consumer protections proposals a call for "compensation" when bags aren't delivered within 24 hours. This is a good start, but if a bag isn't even on the same plane as the consumer, the airline has failed. A simple rule could fix this: If a bag is not on the carousel within 30 minutes of deplaning, customers receive a refund in the form of cash or airline credit, no questions asked.

Ideally, airlines would see the inherent moral imperative here, and offer a refund policy on their own. Since that's not likely, it's time for the DOT to take a harder line on bag fee refunds, and force airlines to deliver bags on time.

2. Clear the Airport Gridlock

The FAA should enforce airport capacity levels and make sure prime departure periods are scheduled appropriately. Many airports are overburdened by excessive traffic well beyond the facility's limits. This habit of poor scheduling leads to all kinds of problems, from gate delays to tarmac delays, and causes inconvenience for passengers and airlines alike.

In an interview last year, pilot and columnist Patrick Smith gave a cockpit's-eye view of the problem. "At JFK, I look at the runway and see a 747 behind half a dozen regional jets, and I think to myself, there's more people on the 747 than on all those regional jets combined. It's so inefficient that it makes hardly any sense," Smith said.

"One thing the industry needs to fix is our overreliance on regional jets. Take LaGuardia, for instance. Fifty percent of the traffic is these tiny little jets that, between them, are carrying maybe 15 percent of the passengers flying that day."

When I asked DOT Secretary Ray LaHood about this issue last summer, he said, "The FAA is working to identify when airlines have scheduled too many flights at the same time or at peak times. If they see too many flights during congested hours at already crowded airports, the FAA will work with the airlines as appropriate to adjust the schedules." He added that the DOT has instituted fines for chronically delayed flights and, of course, tarmac delays.

Here's one specific reform that would help immediately: The FAA and airport operators need to restrict peak departure times to medium and large aircraft, and relegate smaller aircraft, including regional jets, to off-peak hours and limited peak time departures. At major international gateways, such as JFK, priority should be given to large airplanes, especially those flying long-haul international routes. These changes would have the effect of moving more passengers overall during peak times and cutting down on delays during peak travel periods.

A bigger fix can only come with wholesale reform of our air traffic control. NextGen is the code name for exactly that: A complete overhaul of that replaces the current World War Two-era radar technology with a modern, satellite-based model. By switching to NextGen's satellite-based air traffic control system, operators can schedule and monitor planes more precisely, leading to improved punctuality and increased efficiency.

The cost-savings potential of NextGen is immense: Flight delays cost consumers and airlines billions in everything from fuel burn to crew time to hotel nights to airport hamburgers; and flying more efficiently will shave significant dollar amounts from airlines' fuel bills and cut down on pollution. Further, equipping air traffic control with more precise tracking capabilities will make a safe industry even safer.

3. Bring Back Rule 240

Rule 240 has taken on mythical status both for its power and its elusiveness. A few years ago, SmarterTravel's own Ed Perkins explained how Rule 240 is supposed to work:

In its original incarnation, the Rule 240 formula committed an airline facing a delayed flight to transfer you to another carrier if (1) the second airline could get you to your destination more quickly than the original line and (2) it had available seats. In pre-deregulation days, all the big U.S. airlines adhered to this practice.

Nowadays, most airlines have added the caveat, "at our sole discretion," meaning you can ask to be put on another airline, but can't demand, and probably shouldn't expect, that it will happen.

Well, it should happen. If airlines mutually agreed to honor the original spirit of Rule 240, it could cut down on the hassle for customers delayed by airline mechanical issues and other non-force majeure issues (traditionally, Rule 240 did not apply to weather and other "acts of God"). Is it a lot to ask of airlines to place their customers on rival carriers? Sure. Would airlines potentially lose money on those customers, after giving up the revenue and paying another airline for the person's seat? Of course. But an I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine arrangement between airlines means everyone helps each other, thus evening out the costs in the long run and sparing customers the inconvenience.

4. Take the Guesswork out of Frequent Flyer Programs

Call it what you want—a wild goose chase, or perhaps a big game of three-card Monte—but the fact is the same: Deriving any actual value from your frequent flyer miles can be a frustrating experience. Award seats are limited, miles expire, and fees can make the concept of a "free" ticket downright laughable.

Making matters worse, airlines cloud their programs behind vague and insufficient data. "The data that the airlines routinely provide—the number of awards issued in a year, the percentage of seats occupied by award travelers, etc.—in no way helps consumers decide whether a particular program is worth joining, or which programs do a better or worse job of meeting members' expectations," says SmarterTravel contributing editor and noted frequent flyer expert Tim Winship.

The airlines need to address four fundamental issues merely to bring mileage programs up to a basic level of fairness. After all, the underlying reason for mileage programs is that they are a way for airlines to reward their most loyal customers, not punish them.

  • Disclose how many mileage-eligible seats are available on a given flight at any time. The need for this level of transparency is pretty self-explanatory. Airlines should be embarrassed to not already be doing so.
  • Offer a guaranteed percentage of award seats on every flight. Five to 10 percent seems fair—it translates to 7-15 seats on a typical Airbus A320—but transparency is more important.
  • Extend or eliminate expiration dates. Delta recently did this, and other airlines should follow suit. Most airlines provide low-thresholds for extending miles, such as using an affiliated credit card, but forcing program members to spend money just to extend miles they've already earned, well, that just doesn't seem right.
  • Eliminate fees that exist only to gouge customers, such as rush fees and booking fees. Customers ready to redeem miles have already spent their hard-earned cash earning the miles in the first place. Why punish them for being loyal? All fees are annoying, but fees that pinch loyal customers make zero sense, period.

5. Reform the Airline Fee Mess

Airline fees generate too much revenue to suggest they'll ever go away. So why are the airlines still trying to hide them? With fees varying so little from airline to airline, there's no competitive advantage to be gained by pretending they're not there. Airlines should display all fees in a single place that is prominently featured on their homepage, as the DOT recommended in its recent consumer protections proposals.

Better still, airlines and online travel agencies (OTAs) should integrate fees into the booking process. Some fare searches, like our sister site, TripAdvisor, allow you to add in some fees after you've searched a route and set of dates. Great idea, but more can be done.

For starters, airlines and OTAs should factor in bag fees before conducting a search. Bag fees are a good place to start because they don't change often and aren't too complicated. Most major airlines charge an online and airport price for the first and second fees, and a flat price for bags three and up. The challenge for OTAs would be to figure out how to let customers see those fees as part of the search results once the route, dates, and number of passengers are specified.

What about everything else—like priority seating, in-flight meals, and all the other bells and whistles airlines are charging for these days? I spoke with Dennis Schaal, North American editor for Tnooz and co-author of the Digital Traveler column at USA Today, who acknowledged that including anything beyond bag fees would be a challenge. The real issue is that the information—all those fees and ancillary charges—simply isn't being shared.

"In some cases," Schaal says, "the GDSes [global distribution systems] are really slow in developing the technology to handle it. The airlines are really putting a lot of effort into developing these fees. They're rolling them out fast, and the GDSes can't keep up." But airlines, too, are reticent to put their fees in the spotlight. Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza told a Congressional hearing last summer that no airline would be willing to go first when it comes to full, up front fee disclosure, because it would put that airline at a severe competitive disadvantage. Transparency isn't good for business.

Too bad. Fees should be clear and easy to find, and airlines, GDSes, and fare search sites should work together to integrate that most basic and ubiquitous fee of all—bag fees—into the search process. And if those three entities can't cooperate, the government should, shall we say, encourage them.

6. Fix the Boarding Process

Boarding an airline is an unqualified mess. Not only is it slow, it's also stressful, inefficient, and inconvenient. This proposal, then, comes in three distinct parts:

  • Board passengers with carry-ons first (or last). It's easier, quicker, and safer to load overhead bins when the aisle isn't jam-packed. Who among us hasn't had to dodge a bag being hoisted into the overhead bin? By separating the haves from the have-nots, both groups can situate themselves with minimal obstruction from the other.

  • Enforce carry-on sizes and limits. All carry-on bags should be checked for proper size at or before security. It's understandable that more people are trying to fly with just a carry-on these days, but because of that, overhead space is at a premium. It's not fair for one person to take up half a bin, and airlines should take seriously the limits they put in place.

  • Actually board by rows. Airlines tend to board their planes in sets of five rows each, but you wouldn't know it from watching passengers queue up. Therefore, this proposal requires both airline and passenger buy-in. When an airline calls rows 15 to 20, it should not board people in row five. Similarly, people in row five should wait until their row is called. This simple change—which really only requires enforcing existing policies—would go a long way toward smoothing out the process.

It may seem a small thing, in the context of these other suggestions, to propose modest changes to the airline boarding process. But airlines and passengers alike know the value of shaving a few minutes here or there. Virgin America is even testing one of the proposals above—boarding passengers without carry-ons first. Take five minutes off the boarding process of every flight every day, and suddenly the experience of flying becomes a little less aggravating for customers, and measurably more efficient for airlines. Neither party seems likely to say "no" to that.

7. Stop Fighting Yesterday's Battles

It's time for the TSA to go boldly into the future. That said, we'd settle for moving boldly into the present.

The agency's liquid restrictions and shoes-off policy have gone on for too long, and should be phased out by 2013, when the European Union will wind down its own liquid rules. Can it be done? The TSA is already testing devices that would scan liquids, and prototype shoe-scanner models have made the rounds as well.

"I believe [these machines] are the basis of the EU plan to phase out the liquids restriction," says Robert Poole, Director of Transportation Policy for the Reason Foundation. "If that is accurate, then it would be a question of money and schedule, not technical feasibility, for the TSA to do likewise."

Simultaneously, the TSA should move toward a more intuitive screening program. Scanning and/or patting down every single passenger is not a sustainable long-term approach. The FAA predicts US airlines will carry one billion passengers per year by 2021, and that current passenger levels will double within two decades. The system we have now seems incapable of handling that traffic load. And, of course, the already well-discussed civil liberties aspect of the TSA's current model demands correction as well.

Rather than treating everyone equally (which is to say, poorly), as it does today, the TSA should establish a trusted traveler program that allows voluntarily pre-screened travelers to breeze through security, and subjects higher-risk individuals to tougher screening. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) proposed a system like this late last year, and it's a good idea: A checkpoint comprised of three lanes, one each for trusted, regular, and higher-risk travelers, who would be identified using background intelligence.

Surprisingly, a wholesale overhaul of checkpoint policy wouldn't be as difficult as it sounds. According to Poole, "A three-tiered screening process could be implemented using existing checkpoints simply by stopping procurement of the remainder of the body-scanning machines, which under three-tier would be used only for secondary screening ... and setting up a process for potential low-risk travelers to apply for criminal-history background checks." Once a trusted traveler program is established, "Airports and TSA would designate one or more lanes for those in the program. Ordinary travelers and high-risk ones would use the other lanes, with the latter's boarding passes coded for automatic secondary screening."

It sounds almost too simple. More importantly, it sounds almost too good to be true. But the TSA should aim high, and work to establish a three-tiered system within five years, giving travelers a fair balance of safety, privacy, and efficiency.

Your Turn

What do you think are the major problems facing air travelers? What solutions would you propose? Leave a comment below with your thoughts. Thanks!

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