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Airline Mismanagement

Have you ever seen an airline say, in public, that they don't want to care for their customers?

While airlines don't hold press conferences to say this, read what they say in their public filings to the DoT and you'll soon comprehend the underlying meaning of their comments.

 
 
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The Dept of Transportation's Revenge on the Airlines?  Part 2 - Airline Idiocy Exposed

Examples of the Airlines Ducking and Diving to Avoid Becoming More Customer Focused
 

It is hard to believe some of the claims the airlines made about why they should not institute additional passenger rights.

Read the comments below and see what I mean.

Part of a series on being bumped from flights, see the other articles in this series listed on the right.

 

 

Here are selected examples, taken from 165 pages of commentary by the DoT, which in turn contains only summaries of airline and other submissions for and against the new DoT rules now promulgated.

Clearly the airlines need some remedial lessons in what competition is and is not, because they loved to complain that things which we might think are either neutral or positive enhancers of competition are actually the opposite.

The airlines talk in public about the commitments to excellence and customer service.  Now see how they act behind the scenes.

What the Airlines Say

The balance of this article takes quotes and comments from the DoT's 213 page notice of rulemaking, and adds a few thoughts of my own to put the airline comments in perspective.

Please enjoy.

Tarmac Delays

The DoT's proposal to make international airlines also accountable for trapping passengers on planes drew howls of protest.

 Some foreign airlines said there was no need for this regulation because the problem never occurs (or occurs so extremely rarely as to be almost never).

But if that is the case, why would the airlines object to a regulation covering an event that - they tell us - never happens?

Some foreign airlines said delays on their flights were not so important, because they can make up more time on an international flight.

 Maybe, in theory, they could make up time, but modern jet airplanes cruise at 95% or more of their maximum speed, and may not have sufficient fuel to allow for flying appreciably faster, and neither may the airline wish to spend more money on extra jetfuel to fly faster (ie less economically).

Even if they can speed up from say 95% of max speed to 98% of max speed, this means a saving of 2 minutes per hour of flight.  A ten hour flight could therefore make up 20 minutes of delay - and that is the best case scenario.

Perhaps persuaded by this, the DoT has given airlines flying internationally a full extra hour of permissible ground delay (ie from three hours that applies for domestic flights up to four for international).

Airlines also claimed that international flights and planes are better equipped to care for passengers on an extended ground delay.

That is sadly seldom the case.  At the start of a flight, the flight attendants are reluctant to break out food which is scheduled to be served in flight, and at the end of a flight, the food has been eaten and most of the drinks have been consumed too - particularly these days when airlines are cutting back on the amount of extra/surplus supplies they carry.

Most of all, you're still stuck in the same uncomfortable seat.

Advising Passengers About Delay Status

The DoT will require airlines to advise their passengers every 30 minutes about the status of any delay.

The International Air Carrier Association (IACA) said requiring this was unnecessary over-regulation.

Air France/KLM went as far as to say that requiring an announcement every 30 minutes 'will have unintended consequences' (whatever that means).

Qantas and Jetstar said 'we know best' about what to tell us as passengers, or to be exact, they said 'too much detail may lead to false expectations on the part of passengers'.

The National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC) worried that having to give updates every 30 minutes might cause incomplete or inaccurate information to be given to passengers.  Apparently they consider a total silence to be more complete and more accurate than giving the best partial information possible - a bit like the clock which has stopped, but which still tells perfect time twice a day.

Customer Service Obligations on International Flights

 Most foreign airlines say there is no need to obligate foreign carriers (ie themselves) to observe any type of customer service plan, because they already do so as a result of competitive market forces.

It is nice to see airlines displaying such a sense of humor.

Code Share Flights

You may be aware that airlines promote code-share flights as giving a seamless flying experience to us as passengers, making it much easier for us than if we actually knew which airlines were operating the flights we were taking, and giving us the brand and quality assurance of our airline of choice, even if we're actually flying an airline we wouldn't otherwise want to fly (eg your Delta ticket has you flying on an Aeroflot plane).

You may also be aware that the reality is often different.  You turn up at Airline 1's checkin counter with their ticket for their flight, only to discover that it is actually operated by Airline 2, and you have to go to Airline 2's terminal even to checkin for the flight.

Upon getting there, you discover that Airline 2 has different policies for checked bag fees, and what you'd thought would be free or $25 is now going to cost you $50 instead.

The DoT has been struggling in this regulatory process to try and make the reality of code-share flights match the promises.  But when trying to get the airlines to honor these surely key concepts of code-sharing, all of a sudden the airlines protest it is impossible to do so.

The airlines are strongly opposed to any sort of uniform application of one airline's policies onto flights bearing their flight numbers but operated by a different carrier.

The airlines said that guaranteeing good customer service from a code share partner may be outside their control.  Perhaps it is time for the airlines to choose their code share partners more wisely and write their code share agreements more carefully.

NACC said that a requirement for code share partners to have comparable service was an unwarranted interference in commercial relationships, and may discourage such relationships in the future.

And the problem with fewer code share flights in the future would be exactly what?  Code shares give benefits to airlines much more than to passengers - let's call NACC's bluff on this.

Discrepancy in Fees Charged between an Airline Selling a Ticket and the Code-Share Airline Operating the Flight

 The ATA says that any attempt to require a standardization of fees (eg so that the marketing/ticketing airline's fees would apply on a flight bearing its flight number, even if operated by a different carrier) would be anti-competitive and counter to the goals of de-regulation.  It also says it would be impractical, because some airlines operate flights with multiple code-share partners, and would be costly.

US Airways worries that this would create 'different classes of passengers on the same aircraft'.  Hello, US Airways - anyone home?  Choose any half dozen passengers on any flight, and the chances are that they all paid different amounts for their tickets already.  And some passengers may get free or reduced baggage fees currently too, based on what class of frequent flier they are.

Delta also sings the 'anti-competition' song, saying that requiring a uniform approach to fees between an airline and its code share partners would stifle competition.

I wonder in what way DL thinks that a group of airlines, that should be competing against each other, instead clubbing together to operate a single flight which they all share, currently promotes or enhances competition.  Code-shares are anti-competitive right from the get-go, and if DL is concerned about stifling competition, perhaps it should consider de-merging Northwest and cancelling all its current code-share agreements.

Requiring Airlines to set Minimum Standards for Customer Service

 The Air Transport Association (ATA) says that requiring the airlines to observe minimum standards of customer service and compensation would 'dampen innovation, harm competition, and reduce the flying public's options'.

Alas, the only innovation and competition apparent at present is between airlines vying to be first to create more and more draconian fees and charges.

Furthermore, these are minimum standards.  The airlines do not explain how setting a minimum level of service would interfere with them providing above-minimum service levels and competing in this positive manner.

Offering the Lowest Fare Available

Oh my, the airlines hated the concept of being obliged to offer passengers the lowest fare available.  The Arab Air Carrier Association (AACA) and NACC said that doing this would interfere with airline business practices - which is I guess an oblique way of saying that airlines don't necessarily quote you the lowest fare at present.

The Latin American & Caribbean Air Transport Assocation (ALTA) has obviously been getting lessons from a former US President, because it asked for clarification on what the definition of 'offering the lowest fare available' means, and then added that a 'one size fits all' fare (whatever that might be) will prejudice passengers by increasing fares and limiting competition.

How nice of ALTA to point out that by not offering the lowest fares, they are doing this purely for our benefit.

Qantas says that offering the lowest fare would be too hard, due to lots of different ways of costing an international fare.

Holding a Booking for 24 Hours

The airlines didn't like this, either.

But they couldn't decide why - some said that if a booking was held for 24 hours, it would deprive other people of being able to get the fare, while others said that if the booking was then cancelled without penalty, they might not be able to resell the seat to anyone else.

Singapore Airlines had a really convincing objection (not!) - their computer system is not set up for it.

BA makes the puzzling statement that its current selling systems don't allow for 24 hour holds, but if people book through their (800) call center, they are given a 24 hr 'cooling off' period.  So can they do this or not?

Several airlines responded with a modern day version of Marie Antoinette's famous retort, 'Let them eat cake'.  In this case, the airlines suggested that if people wish to be able to change their mind within 24 hours, they should be a refundable type fare (which may cost twice as much money, of course).

Refunding Tickets on Canceled Flights

Amazingly, the airlines don't want to be told they must offer to refund tickets when they cancel a flight.

Among many reasons, the airlines plaintively say that they might be forced to cancel a flight for reasons beyond their control.  That is true, but the cancellation is doubly beyond the control of the person who bought a ticket and relied on the airline's promise to fly them on the specified flight, date and time.

Qantas low-cost subsidiary Jetstar at least had the intellectual honesty to directly say what other airlines hinted at - customers should share in the risk, cost and consequences of cancelled flights, along with the airlines.

As for refunds when a flight is massively delayed, ATA opposed the introduction of a formal definition of how delayed a flight should be before the ticket becomes refundable.  It objected to the creation of a single uniform standard across the industry; something that we as passengers might actually find rather helpful - and of course, any DoT ruling could still be improved upon by individual carriers if they so chose.

Refunding Fees Too.

So you pay a checked bag fee, a priority seat fee, and an early boarding fee.  Then your flight is cancelled, you never get to board or sit in your special seat, and your bag is returned to you, having traveled nowhere.

ATA opposes refunding you those fees, saying its members object to the concept that the cancellation in itself should create a right to the refund of optional fees.

Compensation for Late Delivery of Bags

Apparently, at least according to Air France/KLM, we should be more forgiving of the airlines if bags are delayed and delivered late from an international flight than from a domestic one.

Are they suggesting the inconvenience to us is less?  The cost of buying emergency replacement clothes may be less?

ATA says that refunding baggage fees when bags are delivered late should not be made mandatory, preferring instead to allow the free market and competitive pressures influence how its member airlines handle the matter.

Should I point out that all the major US carriers that charge for baggage fees currently have an identical 'no refund of our fee' policy?  It is hard to see too much competition at work at present.

Disclosing Past Flight Delays and Cancellations

Unsurprisingly, airlines don't want to tell you if the flight you are booking is usually delayed in the past or not, saying that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future performance.

Swiss Intl adds that it would be difficult to tell passengers the information due to using international call centers (huh?).

Note to Swiss :  If this is too great a difficulty for you, maybe you should get out of the airline business entirely.  How do you handle vastly more complicated issues such as 'How much will this flight cost' if you can't even handle such a straightforward question as 'Does this flight usually arrive on time?'.

Advising of Flight Detail Changes in Advance

 British Airways says it should only have to do this if the passenger booked direct with them.  Anyone who books with any type of regular or online travel agency should get such information from them rather than direct from the airline.

Singapore Airlines say it shouldn't have to provide information to people calling on the phone about, for example, the type of plane operating a flight, because people can find the information on their website.  And some of you used to think SQ was a customer friendly airline.....

Self Monitoring Compliance with the DoT Regulations

 This is already required of US carriers, and now will be required of international carriers too.  The international carriers objected (unsuccessfully) saying it would be too complicated and too costly to perform, while Swiss and Air Tahiti said they didn't even know how to monitor such things.

My goodness me - we rely on airlines to monitor their compliance with safety and maintenance requirements which fill many huge thick manuals, full of elaborate procedures, and these same airlines say they don't know how or can't keep a check on whether they are complying with these passenger protection requirements?  What sort of selective incompetence is this?

Requiring the Airlines' Obligations to be Included in Their Formal Contracts of Carriage

 Remarkably, ATA says it doesn't believe the DoT has the authority to require this - apparently the DoT can require the airlines to conform to its regulations, but - if the ATA is to be believed - can't require the airlines to mention this in their public contracts of carriage.  Huh?

US Airways and other carriers also worried that by formally recording their obligations in their contract of carriage they might be increasing their liability to lawsuits (assuming they fail to correctly honor their liability, I guess).

Memo to worried airlines :  Just do what you're supposed to do, then you'll have no worries.

International airlines that do business in the US, and who happily carry US passengers between the US and other countries tried to hide behind their foreignness.  Oh no, we shouldn't have to follow US requirements, was their objection.  They want to do business in our country, but only on their terms.

Advising passengers About How/Where to Complain and Setting Turnaround Times

 This requires airlines to show information on where passengers can direct completes, both on their website and on e-ticket confirmations (including an email address for complaints to be sent to).

Needless to say, the airlines didn't like this idea, and claim this unnecessarily and excessively intervenes in an airline's operations.  Foreign airlines also said this was an illegal imposition of US law on their operations.

The DoT also proposed requiring airlines to acknowledge customer complaints within 30 days and have a response to them within 60 days.

 You can probably already guess what the airlines said about this.  Correct, it 'excessively intervenes into an airline's business practices and disregards procedures carriers already have in place to respond to consumer complaints'.

I guess the 'procedures already in place' include a flat out total ignoring of complaints received, a procedure the airlines wish to be able to perpetuate.

More amusingly, however, they also claim there is no need to set this requirement.  On the other hand, British Airways says 'the timeline is unnecessary and overly burdensome and would force carriers to divert personnel to unnecessary administrative and recordkeeping functions'.  Yes, from BA's perspective, responding to complaints is unnecessary and overly burdensome.

Qantas tries to suggest the fact that it already tries to respond to complaints within 60 days means it shouldn't be mandated that it must.

And IATA said that if an airline sent a 'provisional response' within 60 days the airline should then be allowed an indefinite amount of additional time to provide a final response.

Swiss Intl tried to make the complaining process as unnecessarily difficult as possible by requiring passengers to include a copy of their ticket or boarding pass.  Why?  Is not a reference to the passenger's booking record locator sufficient to find everything - what is uniquely on a ticket or boarding pass that hasn't come out of the booking record in the first place?

Strange Math

 In opposing an increase in denied boarding compensation, Spirit Airlines said that if compensation amounts increased, many consumers will be harmed by increased fares due to the windfall the new DBC amounts will provide to a small number of passengers.

About 1.3 passengers out of every 10,000 are bumped off flights.  An increase from $400 to $650 in compensation for those 1.3 passengers means that the other 9,998.7 passengers will have to pay 3c extra in their fares to cover the extra compensation.  Relax, Spirit - we can afford 3c.

Some international airlines say that passengers who get bumped off their infrequently scheduled flights, and who are forced to wait a day or more to take a later flight, objected to such unfortunate people as getting a 'a windfall for their mild inconvenience'.  What planet do these airline executives live on?

Increasing Denied Boarding Compensation in line with Inflation

 The DoT proposed announcing adjustments to the compensation levels once every two years, based on inflation.

Qantas - an airline that changes its airfares seemingly every week or two, based on the profusion of airfare 'specials' they keep sending me, said these adjustments should only be made every five years, so as to avoid 'excessive administrative costs to implement the changes'.

Note to Qantas :  When you start only changing your airfares once every five years, then and only then can you ask for the denied boarding compensation to be similarly frozen, five years at a time.

Other airlines said it would be a security risk to keep large amounts of cash to compensate passengers at their airport locations.  The DoT pointed out, very politely, that when they required 'cash' compensation, a check would be perfectly acceptable, and indeed, the airline could have up to 24 hrs to mail the check if needed.

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It (Showing the True Cost of Tickets)

 That is what the ATA said to the DoT on the topic of if the DoT should require airlines to show the true total price of an airline ticket in their advertising.  'This is the way it has been for 25 years' was the ATA's not entirely accurate response.

But if this standard is to apply - ie, we freeze things in place, how to explain the ATA member airlines' delight in changing their business costings and practices, now charging us for things that have been free for many more than 25 years such as baggage and food?

The ATA need to be consistent, rather than seeking a 'heads we win, tails we don't lose' approach to their business.

The ATA got really carried away on the topic of requiring airlines to include all government fees and taxes in their advertised fares, trotting out as many politically correct but meaningless statements as it could.  Naturally, standard excuse number one was aired - requiring airlines to truthfully show the total cost of buying an airline ticket would, ahem, negatively impact on competition.

It could also negatively impact service to smaller towns and cities, at least according to the ATA.  And - another standard excuse - would be difficult and complicated to do.

But while ATA had some howlers, IATA managed to come up with the golden line - showing the true total cost of a ticket would confuse customers and prevent a true comparison of airfares.

Strangely, some of IATA's own member airlines actually filed comments supporting the suggestion that advertised airfares should correctly show the total cost of the ticket, and said they already advertise the true total cost.

In an amusing divergence of opinion, ASTA, representing travel agents, says that showing the true total cost is the best way to eliminate passenger confusion and ensure that passengers understand the total cost of their air travel.  But USTOA, representing US tour operators, disagrees, saying that showing the true cost of airline tickets would do very little to solve the current confusion in people's minds about how much airline tickets cost (huh?) while placing costly burdens on travel agents (huh again?).

Automatic Extra 'Opt Out' Fees

On 'opt-out' fees - extra charges that the airline will automatically add to your bill unless you uncheck them on a web page somewhere in the process of buying a ticket - although most airlines agreed that these should be banned, requiring a person to instead do something only if they wished to pay more for something else, American Airlines disagreed, saying that having some fees pre-selected is in line with what customers expect and will help customers customize their travel arrangements.

And fellow Oneworld airline Qantas joins AA in this untenable position, claiming that customers appreciate having extra charges pre-selected automatically.

Advising Passengers of Baggage Fee Charges and Changes

 The DoT asked for comments about requiring airlines to post a message for three months on their website home pages whenever they increased their baggage fees.

Air France/KLM said that posting a link to this information on their websites' homepages would be costly, and suggested instead that they be allowed to place the information wherever on their site they chose, and for only one or two months rather than three.

The DoT dryly observed that 'allowing carriers to decide where the notice should be given may result in some carriers placing the information in an inconspicuous location on the website'.  Take that, AF/KL.

Virgin America worried that requiring this would detract from competitive market forces on how airlines design and set up their own websites.

Jetstar and its parent, Qantas, worried there might not be enough space on their website homepage to add a link to a page detailing baggage fees and changes thereto.

Disclosure of Extra Fees and Charges

The ATA says that disclosing additional fees on e-ticket confirmations would be 'burdensome'.

There are now over 100 different types of airline fees (as identified by ATPCO - the Airline Tariff Publishing Co).  Yes, this is indeed a burdensome amount of fees, but I don't think the ATA would agree, in a positive response to this burden, to simply discontinue all fee charging.

 

 

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Originally published 27 Apr 2011, last update 02 Jul 2017

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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