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Airline Mismanagement

Airline passengers are more reliant on the good will of the airlines than most customers are on the good will of their service suppliers.

So why shouldn't we have the same rights when flying that we do in other ordinary purchases of goods and services?

Of course we should enjoy the same consumer rights when buying airline tickets as we do when buying anything else.

We need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

 
 
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We Need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights

A simple creation of fairness
 

In retail stores, staff are taught how to respond politely and positively to customer complaints.

Flight attendants are being trained how to cuff, restrain, and overpower troublesome passengers.

Complain about poor service, poor food, or anything else - but at your own risk!

We need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

Part 1 of a 4 part series - part 2 proposes the details of a Passenger Bill of Rights, part 3 tells you how you can help a Passenger Bill of Rights come into being, and part 4 is an Electronic Petition for you to sign in support of the Bill of Rights.

 

 

If you buy a car, it comes with a warranty, plus the chances are your state has an auto lemon law, and there are various federal safety and other standards the car must also meet.  If anything is not as advertised and promised, you have recourse.

But if you buy a first class airline ticket, costing $10,000 or more - as much as a small car - you have almost no rights at all, not even a guarantee that you'll get a full first class experience.

If you buy a loaf of bread and it is stale, you can return it.  The supermarket will be apologetic, won't demand proof the bread is stale, and will either fully refund you the cost or give you a new loaf of bread in exchange.  But if your seat is broken on a long flight, or if the airline doesn't have your first choice of meal, or if anything else goes wrong with your flight experience, you're unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing or fair compensation.

And if you complain about poor service, you run the risk of being accused of 'air rage', of being arrested, and possibly being banned from that airline for life.

We need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

 

Why we need a Passenger Bill of Rights

The airlines currently have it all their own way.  Did you know that every time you buy a ticket, you're automatically agreeing to that airline's conditions of carriage?  This is a multi-page legal document that attempts to minimize or eliminate the airline's obligations and liabilities which would otherwise exist in normal common law and regular commercial practice.

If you don't accept these largely non-disclosed terms and conditions, what are your options?  All airlines have very similar contracts.  What choice do you have but to accept - are you going to take a bus or train to the other coast?  Or maybe drive, for five or more days each way?

And if you want to travel internationally, your choices are even fewer.

The reality is we are unable to bargain equally with the airlines, and they are unwilling to bargain fairly with us.  This is why we need a Passenger Bill of Rights.

Airlines currently benefit from bad behavior

Because we, as passengers, have so few rights, this can sometimes tempt an airline to do things that perhaps it shouldn't, and which it certainly wouldn't if it was obliged to honor its promises to its passengers.

For example, at present it can sometimes be cheaper for an airline to cancel a flight than to operate it, particularly because they many times will not need to pay compensation to their inconvenienced passengers.

Another example is with delayed and lost baggage.  New systems, using RFID equipped bag tags, could drastically reduce the amount of luggage that goes missing, and speed up its tracking and return.  But airlines are reluctant to invest in this new technology.  If the cost to the airlines for allowing bags to go missing or to get completely lost were to increase, then you'd see the airlines very quickly improve their luggage handling systems.

The present situation encourages and rewards bad behavior on the part of the airlines.  Surely it is better to put in place a system that encourages and rewards good behavior, and which penalizes bad behavior.

This is also why we need a Passenger Bill of Rights.

How a Bill of Rights encourages Airlines to improve their acts

If airlines are required to generously compensate passengers for service shortcomings, this will selectively add appreciable extra expense to airlines with poor customer service records.

All airlines these days are necessarily obsessing with cutting their operating costs.  Currently, customer service is often seen as a cost, to be cut.  But if there is a potential penalty associated with poor customer service, then improving this part of their operation.

Currently, there is as much as a six fold spread between customer complaint levels relating to 'bad' airlines as compared to 'good' airlines.  This probably doesn't worry the 'bad' airlines too much when there is no clear cost associated with their high level of unhappy passengers.  But no airline can afford to allow its competitors to have a six fold cost advantage, and so if service shortcomings start to directly cost the airlines, they'll very quickly become more reliable and responsive.

Can Airlines afford the costs of a Bill of Rights at present?

When this was first written, in 2005, most major airlines were losing money, and many were either in bankruptcy or hovering on the verge of entering bankruptcy.  Now (in 2007) most airlines are profitable once more.

But their profitability is and always has been their problem.  We as fare paying passengers still have every right to expect service as promised, without delay, cancellation, or compromise, no matter whether the airline is profitable or not.  We don't expect them to compromise on safety and neither should they compromise on service.  If an airline can't afford to operate at a minimum standard of safety, it is not allowed to fly.  Why shouldn't the same rule apply to service?

Only badly managed airlines will incur significant extra costs as a result of failing to comply with a Passenger Bill of Rights.  That is their problem, and they know how to solve it.

Will a Passenger Bill of Rights compromise safety issues?

The airlines have very cleverly - and completely non-attributably - encouraged some gullible people and self-appointed industry commentators to worry that if a Passenger Bill of Rights were passed, then the airlines, when confronted with a 'dangerous' situation and the choices of either operating a flight with compromised safety, or cancelling/delaying the flight and incurring massive compensation costs under a Bill of Rights, would choose to operate the flight, even though safety was compromised.

Some politicians have also advanced this as a reason against enacting a Passenger Bill of Rights.

This is nonsense for several reasons.

Let's do a quick reality check, and remember two things.  The first is that flying is about as safe a thing as you can ever do.  Vastly more people die in their sleep each year than die in plane accidents.  The number of incidents involving fatalities among the major western airlines is barely a handful, in a bad year, and perhaps only one or two in a good year.  We've got layers upon layers of safety already protecting us from anything the airlines might capriciously choose to do.

Secondly, every day the airlines are faced with choices as between safety and profit.  They can choose to do extra optional maintenance or not.  They can wait until parts go completely out of tolerance before replacing them.  They can fly planes with lengthening lists of 'optional' items failed and needing replacement.  They can operate older and older planes.

Clearly the airlines have already found a working compromise between safety and cost/profit.  There's no reason to suspect this would change with the added compliance costs in a Passenger Bill of Rights (with such costs being minor rather than major).

There's another factor.  The airlines are regulated every which way by the FAA and other authorities at present, with further standards imposed on them by the airplane and engine manufacturers.  They don't have much discretion anyway for willfully violating safety procedures.

Lastly, let's remember one more thing.  The airlines don't just enforce high safety standards because they're forced to, or because they're nice guys.  They do it because the commercial cost to them of having a bad accident which could be attributed to bad safety standards would be horrendous.  Would you fly XYZ Airlines if they'd had a couple of fatal crashes due to failing to follow generally accepted safety standards?  Of course not, and neither would anyone else.

A Passenger Bill of Rights simply restores our rights

We're not saying that airline passengers deserve extra and unique rights.  But neither are we saying that airline passengers should be denied rights that other consumers ordinarily have in normal commercial transactions.

We're simply saying that the same expectations you have when buying other goods and services - they will be as described, and, if there is a problem, you will be fairly compensated - need to be returned to airline passengers, the same as all other consumers.

There is a Uniform Commercial Code which exists for most normal commercial transactions, plus other various statutory provisions such as implied and minimum product warranties, obligations for products to meet certain minimum safety standards, and many other things.

Adding an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights is not a precedent setting new form of intrusion into the commercial relationship between a supplier and purchaser of a service.  It simply creates some underlying basic principles of fairness, in line with those already in place for most other consumer purchases, and is a badly needed measure to fill a huge gap in our consumer rights.

A Passenger Bill of Rights doesn't mean Government interference or more bureaucracy

The establishment of a passenger bill of rights won't require a new government department to manage or control it.  All it does is establish a legal framework within which airlines are expected to operate, and to specify minimum compensation levels which airlines must provide when they fail to provide their services as described and promised.

Airlines are still free to set their own pricing and their own policies any way they wish within the framework of the Passenger Bill of Rights.

If for some reason an airline fails to make good on its Bill of Rights obligations, you'd be able to quickly and easily sue in a local District or Small Claims Court.

The only government involvement would be if an airline had a significant history of willfully failing to meet its obligations.  In such a situation, the Department of Transportation and FAA should consider not renewing the airline's license to transport passengers, the same way it would if an airline had a history of maintenance problems.

Past attempts to create a Passenger Bill of Rights

From time to time, there has been talk of creating an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, usually after some particularly appalling example of bad airline service.

Regrettably, the airlines - one of the most effective lobbying groups out there - have managed to squash every previous attempt at enacting a Bill of Rights.

They almost lost the battle in 1999.  The levels of passenger frustration were approaching critical mass, and after an atrocious series of delays that kept passengers trapped on a plane for way too many hours due to airline ineptness, Congress started to talk about passing a Bill of Rights.

The Airlines, through their industry association, the Air Transport Association, quickly and successfully managed to yet again squash this by coming up with their own 'self regulated' Customer Service Initiative, which they announced to great self-acclaim in June 1999.

Most of this Customer Service Initiative was however simply empty phrases, and - most importantly - completely lacking in mandatory provisions or penalties for non-compliance.  It was a 'feel good' thing that was enough to give Congress an excuse to do nothing more, but didn't actually create any new or enforceable obligations for the airlines themselves.

Not all that much afterwards, air traffic numbers faltered, and then along came 9/11 and air traffic dropped drastically, making it much easier for airlines to be well behaved, due to fewer stresses in their systems.

But now that passenger numbers are back up to levels as high as ever before, the system is sagain tressed and prone to delays and problems.  The airlines themselves, in their desperate quest to return to profit, have cut so much slack out of their systems, and trimmed their services to the very bone, such that any slightest mishap can reverberate throughout their system and cause potentially massive problems.

The DoT's statistics tell an ugly story.  In 2004, there were increases in all the components of the airline misery index - delayed flights, cancelled flights, and problems with baggage.  With continued growth in travel in 2005, the misery index can be expected to rise still further.

We need an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

Other countries already have Airline Passenger Bills of Rights

The US is trailing behind other countries at present.  Most notable is the new legislation now in effect in the European Union that obliges airlines to pay compensation for delayed or cancelled flights (summarized in this helpful handout leaflet).

This legislation took effect on 17 February 2005, and gives passengers cash compensation of €250/400/600 (US$325/520/780) depending on if the problem flight is under 950 miles, between 950-2200 miles, or over 2200 miles.

Compensation is awarded for delayed flights, cancelled flights, denied boarding (being 'bumped') and for baggage problems.  Additional compensation such as meals during delays, and overnight accommodation, can also be earned depending on the circumstances.

Assistance must be provided even when the delay is caused by a factor outside the airline’s control, such as severe weather.

Other issues are also covered - for example, if you are downgraded from first class to coach class, you get compensation based on a specific formula.

This is a good piece of legislation, and although there are some ambiguities, is much better than the largely non-existent provisions in the US currently.  But it still leaves some issues untouched - what say the airline promises a meal on the flight, and doesn't serve it?  What say your seat's in-flight entertainment system is broken and the airline can't move you to a comparable seat?

The US has a chance to borrow the best of existing measures and to create a world-leadership role in air travel fairness.

Read more in Parts 2, 3 and 4

In Part 2 we set out the exact contents of a proposed Passenger Bill of Rights.  In Part 3 we tell you how you can help get this Bill of Rights passed, and in Part 4 there is an electronic petition for you to sign in support of this measure.

And if there's something you want to see included, feel free to let us know.

 

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Originally published 18 Feb 2005, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 

 


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