The Department of Transportation has been taking a much more active interest in how airlines sell tickets and deal with passengers during delays and cancellations. The next round of passenger protections goes live January 24, 2012 and will require airlines to advertise all-in prices inclusive of taxes and fees, allow 24-hour holds or refunds and clearly identify baggage fees on itinerary receipts. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, wrote an article last week for USA Today spelling out 12 regulations he’d like to see introduced and further discussed them with Peter Greenberg, a popular travel industry reporter, analyst and TV personality.
I fully respect George and actively follow his website via Twitter, where they often are first to report amazing airfare deals when airlines publish sale fares. I will, however, take issue with a few of his desired passenger protections from that USA Today article.
First up, he’d like to require that airlines protect you at their cost on another airline if a schedule change occurs pre-travel that no longer fits your schedule. The current policy offers a full refund or finds alternate flights on the same carrier. In my experience, most schedule changes are done more than 60 days from departure and are typically minor, being a matter of a few minutes in time change or a swap to a different aircraft type.
For those that are significant, which is what he’s referring to, a schedule change can cause a nonstop to become a connection or possibly even be as severe as an outright discontinuation of service to a city. George claims these most severe schedule changes will “force you to buy a much more expensive last minute fare on another airline.” Again, since these are generally done with a decent lead-time, there are usually acceptable options from which to choose alternate flights on the same carrier and if not, a refund is still acceptable. A DOT rule requiring rebooking on another carrier just isn’t going to happen.
Then, in the case where a carrier goes from daily service to, say, five times weekly, he’s calling for the airline to pay any additional costs the passenger would be forced to pay, such as hotel nights, extra car rental days and meals. Here, the carrier would likely have other flights from which to get you out the same day and if not, then I still agree with a full refund versus covering costs or booking you on another carrier. All passengers are bound by the airline’s contract of carriage when buying tickets, and those rules spell out what is done in the case of schedule changes. No, I don’t read the contract as I doubt any person really does, but the DOT would not create a passenger protection calling for reimbursement of expenses in these instances and instead agree with a full refund as exists today.
Another rule he’d like to see implemented that I disagree with might likely bring me some hate email. He’s proposing airlines add in one or two rows in economy with extra wide seats to accommodate passengers of size. Currently, they have two options: buy an extra economy seat or upgrade into a premium class. I think that’s fair since the cost for what he’s proposing would far exceed the limited amount of time such seats would be necessary. Airlines should not have to plan for passenger-unique contingencies when other options are currently available on every flight. Not going to happen.
Next, he’s calling for airlines to refund taxes paid on a non-refundable ticket if the passenger cancels the flight. Usually here you’re dinged a $150 fee and the residual value can be applied to a new flight. That’s pretty generous in my opinion. He used the example of buying something at Sears and then returning it mentioning they would refund the full amount, including sales tax. Apples to oranges here. What if that Sears item was labeled “no refunds, no returns,” as is the case for non-refundable fares. The airline seems pretty generous in this case, doesn’t it? I’d say returnable consumer items equate more to a refundable airfare on an airline.
Other items he mentions are worth their merit and I suggest you read the article in its entirety. Finally, I’ll nit pick over some of the comments made in Peter Greenberg’s article. I like Peter, but many road warriors know his tips and suggestions are aimed at the very basic occasional traveler.
His recent travels on United Airlines caused him angst when they called, “Global Services members followed by our Premier Executives, followed by our 1K, followed by our Premier, followed by our Gold, followed by Silver, groups 1, 2, 3, 4, 5” for boarding. Ugh. Maybe I’m being anal about this, but his order is incorrect. His status levels are out of place and some have been combined, plus there’s no group five. Anyway, his complaint is over how many different groups there are to board and calls for a simpler system.
George chimes in saying the “premiere flyers are clogging up the aisles for the people in the back of the plane.” No we’re not. We’re the expert flyers getting our bags in the overhead first and settling into our seats quickly. Peter wants us to board last claiming, “why would (elites) want to get on the plane early just to watch everybody board the plane?” Because we want the overhead space. We fly more than once or twice a year and are far more efficient when it comes to every activity at the airport from clearing security to boarding an airplane.
I’ll stop now, but I generally cringe when some of these articles appear and feel compelled to rebut them. George means well and I really do respect his experience and website. I just wish a bit more realism came with his suggestions, since he knows full well the constraints airlines are under and realistically what the DOT can accomplish. Am I being too harsh, or do you agree?