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New ‘rules’ for air travelers

Many travelers seem to think there are still lots of “rules” governing details of air transport. One reader, for example, asked: “On one recent flight, when we arrived late at the departure gate (due to a late incoming connection), the agent told us that standby passengers had already been boarded and would not be removed to give us our seats. But when we later boarded another flight as standbys on the same airline, the agent asked us to vacate our seats for late-arriving connecting travelers. What is the rule on standby passengers: Once on board, do they or don’t they keep their seats?”

The short answer is that there is no “rule” one way or another. Who gets on and who doesn’t is entirely up to the airline—and often to the individual boarding agent and flight crew. The government certainly has no rule, and none of the individual airline contracts of carriage treats this situation either. Individual airlines are inconsistent: A recent TV story told of an airline’s re-opening the door of a flight that had already “closed” to accommodate Britney Spears. Feh!

But this reader’s experience raises a more fundamental question—one that has suddenly emerged as Topic No.1 in airline circles: Do we need some new rules to protect travelers and possibly to establish new “rights” for air passengers? Even though I consider myself an unabashed consumer advocate, I’m concerned that the current travelers’ rights focus may be misdirected.

Where it stands

Currently, only one right broadly applicable to airline passengers is established in law: Ticketed passengers with valid reservations who are involuntarily “bumped” from a flight due to overbooking are entitled to compensation specified by rule. You can find the specific compensation formula in the Department of Transportation (DOT) publication, Fly Rights.

Government rules require other limited rights for travelers on public charter flights. You can find the specific requirements on the DOT website. These days, however, public charter flights are comparatively rare, so these charter rules have become almost irrelevant.

Beyond these limited cases, air travelers have no “rights” specific to air travel. What you get is determined by the contract you have with the airline, as referenced to your ticket. Individual airlines post their contracts of carriage on their websites, but, for the most part, they’re extremely one-sided and full of wiggle words. Contract law therefore becomes your last resort, and passengers sometimes do win lawsuits against airlines.

“Prisoner” flights

The current high-visibility drive for a federally mandated air travelers’ bill of rights was triggered by several recent “prisoner” flights. JetBlue kept some travelers onboard planes, waiting to take off in bad weather, for up to 11 hours. This followed a similar incident on American in Austin. In both cases, the planes had run out of water and snacks, toilets overflowed, and passengers were rightfully steamed.

In response, several senators and congresspersons suggested regulations that would impose maximum times airlines could hold travelers on the ground without letting them off the plane. Those bills are also likely to end up with a laundry list of other requirements.

Meanwhile, JetBlue has officially apologized to the victims and offered various forms of compensation. American, too, is reported to have offered compensation to its Austin victims.

JetBlue also developed and published its own bill of rights, promising various rewards, up to free flights, for travelers held on the ground for excessive periods. Although, as of this writing, no other airline has done the same, industry speculation is that others will follow suit. Once before, in 1999, the big airlines offered “voluntary” standards of consumer care as a ploy to fend off a bill of rights—and their push was successful. Presumably, they’ll try again.

Missing the point?

It seems to me that the current obsession with “prisoner” flights misses the real issues. Prisoner flights are rare, they’re almost always due to weather problems somewhere in the system, they’re the result of screw-ups rather than bad intentions, and so far the airlines involved have compensated victims. Industry mavens warn, with some justification, that imposing rigid requirements might make matters worse rather than better.

What’s really needed

New consumer protections, if any, should focus mainly on legitimate beefs that (1) are ongoing problems rather than screwed-up responses to unanticipated events, (2) market forces have not solved and probably will not solve without external action, (3) are subject to workable, efficient, and effective enforcement, (4) will not make things worse rather than better, and (5) will not put undue pressure on airfares. Examples of proposals that meet those tests include (but are not necessarily limited to):

  • Require that featured airline price advertising—including the big-type prices in print ads and initial online screen displays—pass a “buyability” test, including all taxes and fees (and not “each way based on round-trip purchase”).
  • Require that airlines respond specifically to complaints and pay validated claims (for lost baggage and such) within 30 days.
  • Extend involuntary bumping regulations to cover bumping for all reasons other than weather and to cover aircraft of any size operated by or on behalf of major airlines.
  • Require that vouchers issued in connection with voluntary or involuntary bumping remain valid for at least a year, be fully transferable without fees, and include no restrictions as to classes of service or booking classes for which they can be used.
  • Compensation for cancellations and delays not dictated by weather.

Frequent flyer, too

And then we inevitably come to frequent flyer—a source of endless complaints. I conclude that the time has come for a requirement that airlines provide a “reasonable” number of seats on popular routes at their lower mileage scales. The supposed remedy in the 1999 agreements—disclosure of systemwide frequent-flyer seats the previous year—has proved worthless to consumers whose problem is finding future seats where they want to go.

Yes, I know that travelers “accept” airline rules when they enroll. But the fact is that the airlines have raised expectations by showering travelers with miles and hyping the programs’ alluring rewards while making it extremely difficult for travelers to meet those expectations.

Standards without enforcement

Other proposals being circulated call for a laundry list of “standards” for baggage delivery and various types of notification. My take on those is that standards without effective and workable enforcement systems are worthless. They are of no more use than those empty “do our best” promises in the 1999 voluntary programs.

Disclosure is the industry’s favorite alternative proposal when someone suggests mandatory regulations. To me, disclosure is much overrated as a remedy for consumer abuse. Stripped of the PR and lawyer words, disclosure often amounts to little more than “Yes, we’re screwing you.”

Clearly, voluntary commitments haven’t worked. But standards without enforcement won’t work, either.

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