Marcie Derosas’s hotel problem was solved within minutes of contacting me. Continue reading…
This airline industry is erupting with reports of a study that shows tarmac delay rules are backfiring on passengers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”?