Upgraded: The notion of a contract in air travel
Downgraded: Airline logistics

The Department of Transportation has revealed sweeping new rules that govern airlines’ conduct, but implementation and enforcement will not be as easy as passing a new rule. Most headlines read that this is a big victory for passenger rights, with the bulk of the attention focused on a new 3-hour limit on time spent aboard a plane, pushed away from the gate. That’s something but this won’t please everybody. (If your flight would be able to take off 3 hours and 5 minutes after pushback, tough luck, you’re heading back to the gate at the 3 hour mark…) Ground delays suck. No doubt. But There will be unintended consequences, and airlines will find ways to address these logistical challenges.

More importantly, in my view, the rules include a provision that airlines can’t retroactively change the contract governing your ticket. This has always struck me as patently unfair: You buy your ticket in January for a March flight, and the airline changes its rules in February; until now, you’ve been stuck with the February contract. Now, the federal government has ruled that you’re covered by the original contract in effect when you made your purchase. Good.

Chris Elliott has pulled the highlights from the actual rules, if you want to review.

Downgraded: Globespan Airlines
Potentially Downgraded: Credit card processors

Scotland’s Globespan Airlines shut down abruptly over the weekend, stranding 4500 travelers mid-trip. For the time being, guidance from the company on rebookings, is available on the former airline’s website. But questions now turn to whether or not the airline’s credit card processor was to blame for the immediate death knell. The processor, E-clear, apparently held back between £30m and £35m due to Globespan. You may recall that Frontier Airlines blamed their credit card processor when they declared bankruptcy in 2008 (though they didn’t halt all operations at that point).

Upgraded, after days of being Downgraded: Eurostar
English Channel rail firm Eurostar had a miserable (and well-publicized) weekend, with a complete shutdown of all their trains, midway through the Channel crossing. And the company handled things rather poorly. For example:

When worried passengers [aboard the trains] challenged Eurostar officials they received a cursory shrug. Some became so desperate for information that they banged on the train driver’s door but could only hear him sobbing inside.

Awesome. That’s the kind of leadership in a crisis I look for… But the company is resuming service and has promised to make it up to the thousands of passengers it stranded, not just in the tunnels, but on both sides of the channel. They’ve vowed that “the company would reimburse them for expenses incurred while they were stranded.”

Upgraded: The number of stars in the Parisian hotel sky
Four stars? Not enough. Bring on the fifth star. At least they haven’t gone the way of the absurdist 6 and 7 star hotel…

Upgraded: Biofuels
A Seattle company has put in motion plans to create a large-scale biofuels operation aimed specifically at airlines. AltAir Fuels has signed up 14 airlines to be launch customers for jet fuel and diesel made from camelina, a mustard-like weed whose seeds can be refined.

Faced with a bill in Parliament that would impose costs on airlines that keep passengers on board during tarmac delays, Canada’s largest airlines — Air Canada, Air Transat, Jazz Air LP, and WestJet — are trying to pre-empt the legislation by adding passenger rights to their contracts of carriage. The policies are a step forward, but they’re less that what would have been…

The airlines, through the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC), made the submission as part of a bid to convince MPs to kill Bill C-310, a private member’s bill put forth by New Democratic Party MP Jim Maloway.

Maloway’s bill proposes that passengers kept on a plane for longer than one hour should receive compensation at a rate of $500 per hour.

The bill also calls for airlines to pay $1,200 to a passenger if they are bumped from a flight longer than 3,500 kilometres.

$500 per hour? Ouch! No wonder they’re trying to fend this off.

But instead, the fares filed by the consortium of airlines mirrors the watered-down proposal called “Flight Rights.” The Flight Rights code of conduct, proposed in September 2008 by the Canadian government. Instead of $500 per hour of delay, the counteroffer is a meal voucher. Seriously:

Passengers have a right to punctuality.
a) If a flight is delayed and the delay between the scheduled departure of the flight and the actual departure of the flight exceeds 4 hours, the airline will provide the passenger with a meal voucher.
b) If a flight is delayed by more than 8 hours and the delay involves an overnight stay, the airline will pay for overnight hotel stay and airport transfers for passengers who did not start their travel at that airport.
c) If the passenger is already on the aircraft when a delay occurs, the airline will offer drinks and snacks if it is safe, practical and timely to do so. If the delay exceeds 90 minutes and circumstances permit, the airline will offer passengers the option of disembarking from the aircraft until it is time to depart.

The “trapped passengers” angle is too narrow. As much as it makes for a great headline, it’s a rare occurrence, and not really where the “action” is. But the Flight Rights model doesn’t do much for passengers who are overbooked, a historically far more common phenomenon, either. The language doesn’t even guarantee transportation:

Passengers have a right to take the flight they paid for. If the plane is over-booked or cancelled, the airline must:
a) find the passenger a seat on another flight operated by that airline;
b) buy the passenger a seat on another carrier with whom it has a mutual interline traffic agreement; or
c) refund the unused portion of the passenger’s ticket.

So much for a “right.” And good luck getting b). Of those three options, airlines will likely choose a), even if times are inconvenient to the traveler, and then opt for c).

The Maloway bill is too harsh. But the airlines’ adoption of “Flight Rights” is too little. There’s still a middle ground, waiting to be claimed.

- Continental to allow passengers off planes after three hours’ delay
- State passenger bill-of-rights law struck down: Who needs food and water, anyway?
- Passenger rights movement regaining relevance?
- Good for the goose, good for the gander: Charge change fees to your airline?

approaching airport Upgrades and Downgrades    Passenger dropoffs, failed lawsuits, and frequent flyer sales

Downgraded: Willingness of friends and loved ones to give you a ride to the airport
Airports’ inventive enthusiasm for new fees rivals that of the airlines, as we’ve seen when airports try to add fees to previously free services like shuttle buses. The latest entry: A passenger dropoff fee. London-Luton Airport will charge a £1 toll to cars bringing passengers to the departures area, with a 10-minute time limit. Dropoff at a parking shuttle bus stop remains complimentary. Birmingham charges double the fee for a 15-minute time window. Great, now they’re not just charging the traveler, but also the family or friends. I realize that this is a way to manage traffic as well as raise money, but I honestly hope we don’t see this set of fees proliferate. (Thanks, Rick!)

Downgraded: Tort law remedies for trapped passengers
A passenger who sued American Airlines for being stuck on a plane on the tarmac for 9 and a half hours (ouch) had her case dismissed by the court. Her charge of false imprisonment didn’t stick.

Upgraded: Buses
Private jets are out. What’s in: Pimped out corporate buses.

Upgraded: Short-term discounts booking Delta or Northwest miles
Delta and Northwest are temporarily reducing the number of miles you need to book frequent flier tickets to international destinations on Delta, Northwest, or KLM. It’s only through April 20, and only for travel abroad, so move quickly. See here for Northwest, or here for Delta. Another sign that traffic across the oceans isn’t exactly brisk… (And remember, you can get bonus miles through April 15 — again, hurry! — for converting your Northwest WorldPerks miles to Delta SkyMiles.)

tiny continental airlines Continental to allow passengers off planes after three hours delay

The Dallas Morning News noted the following comment by Continental’s chief operating officer during the airline’s earnings call on Thursday:

Finally, we are implementing a new internal policy for 2009, whereby we will give customers the opportunity to get off an airplane during tarmac delays in excess of three hours, subject of course to making sure we can do that safely.

The tarmac delay issue is a serious (if rare) one, but it’s not the #1 problem facing travelers today. The reason for the timing is most likely the legislation that’s moving through Congress right now that would require a three-hours “escape” option.

Being stuck on a plane is no picnic, and this is a good step. But the policy needs to be fleshed out. Right now, there are more questions than answers.

How will customers be “allowed to get off the plane”? Will they be bused to the terminal, or does the plane taxi back?

Do all passengers have to get off if someone wants off? Is it an all-or-none proposition?

Will the flight be canceled if someone opts to leave? What if other passengers who really need to make it to their destination stay on board? Who makes that call?

This is going to be a big, stinkin’ logistical mess to work through. And flight crews will need clear rules on both how to implement the policy, and how to communicate the options to passengers.


justice State passenger bill of rights law struck down: Who needs food and water, anyway?

Passenger bill of rights (PBOR) advocates were dealt a blow today, when a federal appeals court overturned New York’s PBOR law. Why? The state law is superseded by the federal Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, so the state legislature is deemed unable to re-regulate the airlines.

The challenge to the New York law was brought by the Air Transport Association of America, the industry trade group that represents many U.S. airlines.

As Sam Glover notes:

While the Second Circuit’s interpretation of the preemption clause in the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 seems at least reasonable, I have to wonder whether the air travel industry would have been better off losing this case. Now they just look like inhuman jerks who do not want to be bothered with giving trapped passengers some very basic creature comforts. Like air to breathe and a place to pee.

Fixing this at a state level may not work, after all. This will require leadership at the federal level. Write your House Representative. And your Senators, too.

(Thanks to Sam and Lar!)



nudist on strike Passenger rights movement regaining relevance?

Has the passenger rights movement found a second life in the recent tumult over airline mergers?

Kate Hanni’s Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, which seemed to be on the fast track to irrelevance by sticking to a narrow pitch of opposing passenger strandings by the airlines, may have found new purpose. The Coalition has created an alliance with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to oppose any airline merger that involves American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, or United. (Southwest, AirTran, US Airways… feel free to merge away!)

Will they have an impact on the merger mania? That depends on what “opposition” to a merger really means. Pickets? Passenger and employee strikes? Lawsuits? We’ll see.

But the key is this: This is an effort to take the stalled passenger rights movement and extend it into a real organization by joining forces with other parties. Creating an interest group, and not just a bunch of people with a website.

But as Chris Elliott warned a while back, any organization needs to look out for passengers, not just for media coverage. Opposing these mergers is pro-consumer, so this is a promising step for Kate Hanni & Co. But, much like there are automobile associations, there’s a long way to go before we have a true airline passenger organization.

Still, this may be the first step.

- Travel 2008: 33 hours from San Juan to Chicago
- Good for the goose, good for the gander: Charge change fees to your airline?
- Passengers’ bill of rights: Slow but steady progress?
- Chicago City Council to mandate passengers’ bill of rights?
- Should we trust airlines to improve passenger rights?