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The Truth About Deceptive Airline Practices

Numbers can tell the whole story. Or they can be used to obscure it.

While it’s hardly the only business to do so, the airline industry has shown a particular tendency to torture data until it reveals a story of its own liking. Its fuzzy math gives the traveling public an inaccurate impression of loyalty program popularity, on-time records, and low prices, to name a few topics close to flyers’ hearts. Flyers are now finding it quite difficult to choose which carrier to support when all they ever hear are half-truths.

Who’s really a member?

As an example of the airlines’ creative accounting, consider a recent news release from American, the world’s largest airline. In the release, American boasted that its mileage program, AAdvantage, was the world’s first and remains the largest with 56 million members.

There’s no question that AAdvantage legitimately holds the title as the first of the modern travel-rewards programs. It beat out archrival United by a mere two weeks in the race to launch a loyalty scheme in the early days of airline deregulation.

But most industry outsiders would be scandalized to discover that in reporting the membership of its program, American includes every account ever established since the program’s inception. Included among those 56 million members are duplicate accounts; accounts of people who signed up but never earned or redeemed a mile; and accounts of those who enrolled at some point during the program’s 26-year history but have since died.

American, it should be pointed out, is not alone in its member accounting practices. This tactic has become the industry standard.

If such metrics were purely academic, the airlines might be forgiven for indulging in arcane counting methods. But airlines tout these figures in their marketing efforts to establish the legitimacy of their programs. They play to the natural assumption that more members means not only a bigger program but a better one.

What matters to consumers is a measure of other travelers’ engagement with various programs. Meaningful disclosure by the airlines would consist of reporting the number of active members. What constitutes activity, and whether it occurred within six months, one year, or two can be debated. But including as members account holders who are inactive, some terminally, is useless at best and cynically misleading at worst.

Is your on-time flight stuck on the runway?

Another area where the airlines have played fast and loose with their reporting has been in the area of on-time performance.

According to the Department of Transportation, a flight has departed on time so long as the plane has pushed back from the departure gate within 15 minutes of the published departure time. That seems reasonable until you realize that the aircraft’s leaving the terminal and its taking to the air are two very different and separate events.

In fact, in order to maintain high on-time departure percentages, airlines routinely back their loaded planes onto the tarmac knowing full well the flight won’t be taking off any time soon. The disconnect between what the airlines report and what passengers actually experience was made glaringly apparent in a recent series of incidents in which fully loaded planes left the gate only to sit for several hours on the tarmac a mere stone’s throw from the terminal. Whereas passengers on these flights surely considered themselves delayed, if not kidnapped, the offending airlines could report on-time departures.

Delays are clearly underreported, but the airlines continue using the data to promote their supposed reliability. What travelers want is a measure of an airline’s ability to reliably transport passengers between two points, departing and arriving as promised by the airline’s schedule. To many consumers, that amounts simply to an airline’s on-time arrival performance, and that’s exactly what the airlines can and should provide.

How cheap is that cheap ticket?

Perhaps the most flagrant example of the airline’s numbering problems is in the area of pricing. Take as an example the following from United: “Travel from where you are to where you want to go this fall for as low as $44.”

While the ad trumpets a $44 fare, the fine print acknowledges that price is one-way based on a required round-trip. The real price is $88—assuming, that is, there are seats available at the teaser price.

Also lurking in the fare’s terms and conditions is the disclosure that the quoted price does not include taxes and fees. Among them are a $3.40 per flight segment tax, the September 11th Security Fee of $2.50 per flight, and Passenger Facility Charges of up to $18, “which may be collected depending on the itinerary.” If you call the airline’s reservations center to make the booking, there’s also a $10 service fee.

When everything is factored in, the traveler would be paying close to three times the advertised $44 price.

It is well within the airlines’ capabilities to do the math and disclose the true ticket price up front. It’s clearly the right thing to do from the standpoint of their customers, and the airlines should be required to do so.

According to the latest University of Michigan American Customer Satisfaction Index, the airlines’ credibility with consumers is at a seven-year low, behind such perennial underperformers as cellular service providers. At the same time, the airlines’ fuzzy math has become the butt of cocktail party jokes.

Perhaps the solution to the airlines’ credibility crisis lies simply in telling the truth.

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