How airlines plan to have their way with fare disclosure

The U.S. House of Representatives’ suspension calendar is an unlikely ground zero for a midsummer battle over airline ticket advertising. But then, almost nothing about the oddly named Transparent Airfares Act, a bill championed by the domestic airline industry, has followed a likely trajectory.
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When to bend a rule — and when to break it


Rules are meant to be broken, right? Well, you might be forgiven for thinking so if you’re a regular reader of my work.

As a consumer advocate, I routinely help people bend rules when circumstances warrant it. Of course, that brings out the usual chorus of rule-lovers, trolls and haters, who accuse me of threatening the foundations of Western civilization by convincing a company to waive its often ridiculous policies.

But rules are important. Just ask Congress, which is on the verge of shutting down half of the U.S. government because of disagreements over the budget and healthcare reform. As I write this, I’m in Washington sitting next to a government executive who is worried sick that her office will be shuttered tomorrow. It probably will be.

The law-and-order folks have a valid point, once you get past their often angry personal attacks. Some rules are not meant to be broken.

For example, here’s a request I received from Mary Anne Fontaine on behalf of a friend who flies once a year and had found an inexpensive ticket on Allegiant Air.
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Here we go again! Another tarmac stranding incident — beware of outraged talking heads on TV

It seemed eerily familiar: A JetBlue aircraft, a freak storm, passengers stranded on an aircraft for hours — and all happened near the media capital of the world.

Except that it wasn’t Valentines Day 2007, the infamous ice storm that cost JetBlue its golden reputation, made a small-minded mainstream media obsessed with tarmac delays and led to tough but largely unnecessary new government rules on tarmac delays.

It was happening right now, in real time.
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Can this trip be saved? A flat tire on the way to the airport — and a $273 fee to fly

Ana de Pascht’s airline ticket from Albany to Raleigh/Durham came with all of the usual restrictions: nonrefundable, nontransferable and non-changeable without paying a hefty fee.

But it wasn’t the usual flying experience. On her way to Albany, she got a flat tire.

“I called US Airways and asked what could be done,” she says. “I was told that I had to buy a new ticket and also pay a change fee of $150 — a total of $273 — if I wished to travel on the next flight out. I did question the agent about any other ways to avoid paying all that money and was told that was my only option if I wished to fly.”

Interestingly, most airlines used to have what’s called a flat-tire rule that allowed airline staff to rebook passengers like her on the next flight at no extra charge. But in an era of “no waivers, no favors” the loophole was quietly closed.

Well, sort of. Ticket agents still have a lot of flexibility in dealing with passengers who can’t make a flight, and US Airways could have bent its rules. It chose not to.
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“The Department of Transportation has used a bazooka to kill an ant”

The long-awaited sequel to this summer’s controversial tarmac delay study has just been released. In it, aviation analysts Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks claim 384,000 more passengers were stranded by cancellations last summer, and an additional 49,600 air travelers experienced gate returns and delays. It calls on the Transportation Department to clarify its three-hour turnback rule — a rule the DOT insists is a resounding success.

I asked Jenkins about the study and its conclusions this morning. Here’s our interview.

You’ve analyzed flight cancellations based on last summer’s data. What’s the bottom line for passengers?

If it’s summer, and there’s a thunderstorm, and your flight is canceled because of this rule – and last summer, load factors were 90 percent or higher – it will take a full day to rebook you on another flight.
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Tarmac-delay rule gives air travelers more respect

If you’re afraid of being trapped in a parked plane on your next trip, stop worrying.

Only three flights were delayed more than three hours in July, the latest month reported by the Transportation Department. All the incidents happened on the evening of July 23, when a line of “very nasty” thunderstorms swept through Chicago, according to American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely.
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TSA’s liquid rules: So long, 3-1-1?

The Transportation Security Administration’s unpopular restrictions on liquids, gels and aerosols in carry-on luggage — better known as the 3-1-1 rule — are history.

Passengers say the TSA has all but stopped screening their baggage for liquids. They say transportation security officers no longer ask them to remove lotions, shampoos and even water bottles from their luggage, and overlook all manner of liquids packed in their carry-ons during screening.

“I was never asked about the liquids in my bag or asked to remove them,” says Doris Casamento, a retiree from Naples, Fla., who recently flew from Miami to Rome. “My husband had a bottle of water from the hotel he forgot was in his carry-on and it was never confiscated. The water was in a shallow shoulder-bag bulging practically in plain sight.”
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What to do when an airline doesn’t follow its own rules

Can you force an airline to follow its own rules? Phil and Margaret Warker wanted to know after a disastrous return flight from Nassau to Washington via Miami. US Airways blamed the weather and offered them a $100 flight voucher for the trouble.

But the Warkers saw things differently. They believe they were involuntarily bumped from their Miami flight, and claim the gate agents in Nassau promised them more compensation. Who’s right?
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Trade groups want their piece of pie in the sky

fire in the skyNo one would claim that any of the new travel-related laws scheduled to take effect in 2010 are game-changers for travelers. They’re relatively minor: a new credit card rule here, a new airport security policy there.

But what kind of law would really improve your travel experience next year?

Instead of asking readers for their opinions, as I do every week, I decided to hand the mike to the trade organizations in Washington that represent various parts of the travel industry. Specifically, I wanted to know which law they’d like to see passed in 2010 that they think would most benefit travelers.

The short answer? Most trade groups want laws authorizing Congress to spend more money, which they say will help us.
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New rule: 3 travel policies that should be revived

Fumiko Seguchi did everything by the book on her recent flight to Tokyo. She confirmed her departure 24 hours in advance. She secured a seat assignment. And she arrived more than two hours before departure.

But Seguchi, who was visiting a friend in Orlando, couldn’t have anticipated the long check-in lines at the airport. “There were only a few ticket agents at the counter, so the line went on forever,” says Fran Mingle, Seguchi’s friend. “She waited and waited. After getting concerned about missing her flight because of the inordinate delay, she asked if she could be accommodated next but the American Airlines personnel told her ‘no’.”

Seguchi missed her flight and was asked to pay an extra $2,600 for a ticket the next day. American had thrown the book in her face.

If this had happened a decade ago, Seguchi probably wouldn’t have paid an extra dime. Airlines had what’s known as a “flat tire” rule that allowed passengers who were delayed because of circumstances beyond their control to be rebooked on the next flight at no additional charge. But like many of the travel industry’s customer-friendly policies, the “flat tire” rule was quietly dropped after 9/11 in an effort to raise revenues. Compassion went out the cabin door.

Maybe it’s time to bring back some of these rules.

I asked American if it might revive its rule for Seguchi, as an exception. After some negotiations, and a frantic call to her travel agent in Japan, she was allowed to fly back to Japan for a nominal change fee. American sent her a $200 travel voucher for her trouble, but defended the practice of charging passengers for a missed flight. “While we make every effort to ensure there are enough agents staffing our ticket counters, it is not always possible to forecast the number of customers who will need assistance — especially when unexpected circumstances cause long lines,” said airline spokeswoman Andrea Huguely.

Which policies ought to be revived? Here are three worth considering:

The flat tire rule
Getting rid of the “flat tire” rule was an incredibly profitable mistake. Not only because it’s unfair, but also because it formalizes a double standard. Passengers like Seguchi are expected to give airlines a break when there’s bad weather, an air traffic control problem or a mechanical delay. But when air travelers can’t make their flight for reasons completely beyond their control, airlines often insist on sticking it to them for a full walk-up fare. That’s what Northwest Airlines did when Jeremy Gaisin’s car ran out of gas and he missed a flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam recently. It charged an extra $1,400, but generously agreed to waive a $250 change fee. He tried to appeal to an executive, but “the agent was saying they would not speak to me,” he says.

Too bad his flight wasn’t on Southwest. It still has an informal “flat tire” rule, according to customers. (I asked Southwest, and a spokeswoman told me “we do empower our employees to handle each situation on a case-by-case basis,” and added, “Is that ambiguous enough for you?” Um, yes.)

Grace period for car rentals
A few years ago, in an effort to make more money, car rental companies tightened their grace periods for late-arriving customers. A reasonable one-hour window was abbreviated to half and hour and in some cases, closed entirely. That meant many customers would have to pay late penalties ranging from an extra hour billed at the company’s highest rate, to an extra day. Take Richard Gordon, a small-business consultant who lives in York, Pa., who rents a car several times a week. “I’m renting a car from Hertz today, and it’s going to cost an extra $98,” he told me.

Why should car rental companies become more generous, particularly at a time like this, when their earnings are on the verge of a breakdown? The answer is simple: We cut car rental companies a lot of slack when they’re understaffed or have run out of cars. I waited almost an hour for my last car, but I didn’t complain and certainly didn’t try to pay less for the car. But the company wouldn’t have hesitated to charge extra if I brought its vehicle back only a few minutes late. Seems a little unfair, doesn’t it?

The real Rule 240
“I’d like to see them bring back Rule 240,” says travel agent Sylva Frommer-Mracky. “The true 240.” Ah, wouldn’t that be nice? But who knew that the Rule 240 being used today was a fake? The original Rule 240, which outlined what carriers would do for passengers whose flights were delayed or canceled, was part of the airlines’ tariff rule — its legal contract — before the airline industry was thoughtlessly deregulated during the Carter administration. “Such services often included things like meals, phone calls, or endorsing the ticket over to another carrier at no additional charge to the passenger,” says Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the Transportation Department.

Even after deregulation, airline agents continued to write “Rule 240” on tickets when rerouting a passenger. But airlines weren’t required to comply with the old 240, and did so only as a way of staying competitive. The government required airlines to follow their contracts, but didn’t mandate a Rule 240. “A passenger’s entitlement to Rule 240-style services depends on what might be specified in that particular carrier’s contract of carriage, not on any single industry-wide rule or standard,” adds Mosley. I don’t know of any sane airline expert who would oppose the return of a real Rule 240.

Some of these rules are already in effect, but you have to travel a fair distance to experience them. For example, Europe’s Rule 261/2004 offers Rule 240-like protections for air travelers. Other countries have strong laws that prevent companies from imposing predatory rules on their citizens, which, come to think of it, would be a nice thing for travelers in the United States.

It would be even better if travel companies would revive these rules on their own, for no other reason than that it’s the right thing to do. The money earned from customers who couldn’t make their flight, were caught in traffic on their way back to the car rental location or had the misfortune of being on a plane with an operational delay, is insignificant compared with the revenues companies will lose when their customers decide to stop doing business with them.

And that day will come soon.

Airlines jettison compassion, hoping it will lift earnings

The so-called “flat-tire rule” that allows airlines to rebook passengers who are delayed for reasons beyond their control went flat last year. But now there’s evidence that the proverbial wheels have come off this plane.

Travel agent Richard Kenner had two clients who recently tried to invoke the rule when they missed a flight at JFK because their taxi driver was confused about which terminal they were flying out of.

Delta refused to do anything other than treat this as a voluntary change and I got nowhere on the phone with them. Has there been a change here?

Well, it turns out Kenner follows airline contracts closer than I do. (I have links to the full contracts here.) After some digging, he determined that a small but significant change had taken place in airline policies regarding missed flights.

Before 9/11, when the flat-tire rule was in effect, most airlines had a policy that they would reschedule you on the next flight if you were late for reasons beyond your control.

Between 2001 and 2007, the policy was more amorphous. Which is to say, the airlines quietly did away with the flat-tire rule without necessarily informing their passengers. And they allowed for some exceptions.

This year, airlines for the first time codified their refusal to rebook tardy passengers.

For example, here’s Delta’s Rule 135 governing cancellation of reservations. Check out paragraph C, subparagraph 3.

Passengers must arrive at the airport sufficiently in advance of a flight departure time (generally, not less than 2 hours) to permit completion of government requirements, security procedures, and departure processing.

Departures will not be delayed for passengers who are improperly documented, or have not completed all security processing, or have not met the carrier’s check-in requirements. Delta is not liable to the passenger for loss or expense due to the passenger’s failure to comply with this provision.

Paragraph D says Delta is not liable when it cancels the reservation of any passenger in accordance with this rule, but and (2) of it says:

If such reservation was canceled pursuant to other paragraphs of this rule, Delta will refund in accordance with Rule 270 (Voluntary Refunds).

“I’m fairly sure that older versions of the document didn’t go that far out of the way to disclaim responsibility for missed flights,” says Kenner.

Ditto for Continental, which just revised its contract in May. This is from Rule 5, section D, of its contract.

It is the Passenger’s responsibility to arrive at the airport with enough time to complete the security screening process and to comply with these CO minimum time limits.

Doing away with the “flat-tire” rule may be good for an airline’s bottom line, but I think it’s morally wrong.

Passengers cut airlines all kinds of slack for circumstances beyond their control, including weather and air traffic control delays. These provisions are even written into the airline contracts.

Shouldn’t airlines extend the same courtesy to their customers? Or have we really become, in the parlance of flight attendants, nothing more than “self-loading freight”?