When to bend a rule — and when to break it

Kesu/Shutterstock
Kesu/Shutterstock

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

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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