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
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,
tells you how you can help a Passenger Bill of Rights come
into being, and
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
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
We need an Airline Passenger
Bill of Rights.
Why we need a Passenger Bill of
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
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
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.
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
Some politicians have also
advanced this as a reason against enacting a Passenger Bill of
This is nonsense for several
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
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
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
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
Regrettably, the airlines -
one of the most effective lobbying groups out there - have
managed to squash every previous attempt at enacting a Bill of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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18 Feb 2005, last update
28 May 2011
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.