Airline travelers' frustration is soaring to new heights
Lacking rights, passengers have little recourse
American Airlines cancels more than 3,000 flights because of maintenance issues. Too bad. Skybus Airlines goes bankrupt and shuts down. Find another way to get to Ohio. You're trapped on a tarmac for 10 hours - sit tight.
The state of air travel in the United States has perhaps never been worse, with the Federal Aviation Administration inspection crackdown causing extensive flight cancellations, rising fuel costs driving airlines out of business, and runway congestion sending waves of delays rippling throughout airports.
While there's no question that these are tough times for the airline industry, it is the paying passengers who are feeling the effects. Indeed, the recent spate of flight cancellations and a series of low-cost airline shutdowns have caused many travelers to face a frustrating reality: Airline passengers have virtually no rights.
"In the airline industry, the passenger is left holding the bag," said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University associate professor of marketing and coauthor of a recent report critical of the airlines.
Headley speaks from personal experience. After announcing the findings of the report in Washington earlier this month, he took off on an American Airlines flight bound for Wichita via Dallas. But when the plane landed in Dallas, the passengers found out that all of American's continuing flights to Wichita had been abruptly canceled after the airline was forced to ground and reinspect its fleet of MD-80 jetliners to make sure a wiring bundle in the wheel wells was stowed properly.
After a long delay and much back-and-forth with various American booking agents, Headley was able to secure a flight out of Dallas to Tulsa - a three-hour drive from his hometown - that evening. After plunking down nearly $100 for a rental car, he was able to make it back to Wichita by about 2:30 a.m. - roughly seven hours late. His bags, however, didn't arrive until two days later.
"Passengers on airlines are treated differently than other service customers," he said. "In the airline business, passengers are left to talk to gate agents or ticket counter employees. If they ever do get their complaint to higher levels, there is such an elaborate level of forms and letters and wait and wait. It's one of the few pure customer businesses where the customer has very little connection with someone who can do something about their situation."
Passengers are entitled to a refund by law - even for a nonrefundable ticket - if they decide to cancel a trip because of a flight cancellation or significant nonweather-related change, like a delay of more than a day or a change from nonstop service to a flight with a stop. But with airplanes packed to near capacity these days, good luck finding an open seat on another flight for your family of four when chaos breaks out at the airport.
"Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements," according to "Fly-Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel" from the Department of Transportation. After American grounded its MD-80s last week, some of its passengers were forced to wait as many as three days for a new flight.
American issued an apology to its customers via e-mail for the thousands of flight cancellations, noting that it was providing meals, hotels, and ground transportation for dislocated customers as well as vouchers for future travel for those stranded overnight.
While it's often in such extreme circumstances that the issue of passenger rights comes up, the fact is airline passenger protections have slowly been eroding over the years. For example, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress required competing airlines to charge passengers who had tickets on a failed airline only $25 for a one-way replacement ticket. (The fee was later raised to $50.) But as travelers holding tickets on defunct carriers like Aloha Airgroup, ATA Airlines, and Skybus Airlines recently found out, that safeguard, along with a law that gave passengers 60 days to ride standby at $50 each way, disappeared in 2006 after Congress let the requirement expire.
The plight of passengers was acknowledged by a federal appellate court in Manhattan three weeks ago, when ruling on a passenger bill of rights that would require airlines to provide food, water, and bathrooms for passengers stuck in a grounded aircraft for more than three hours - as many were last February when
Meanwhile, a similar bill introduced at the federal level was passed by the Senate Commerce Committee as part of the FAA's budget reauthorization in May of last year. But the bill has been languishing for nearly a year now as the Senate cannot move forward on the legislation until the Finance and Commerce committees resolve the funding issues in the reauthorization.
Ironically, some airlines are now trying to make money from passenger concerns about flight delays and cancellations.
In the regulated era, most airlines agreed to transfer a traveler of a canceled flight to another airline provided it could get the traveler to his or her destination sooner. This became known as the Rule 240 transfer. Today, each airline spells out its customer service commitments, including how it handles canceled flights, in a "contract of carriage." A few carriers will transfer a passenger of a canceled flight to another airline if they don't come up with an alternative within a specific amount of time. Others are less explicit.
Delta, which labels its policy about flight delays and cancellations as Rule 240, states that it will transfer a passenger to another airline "at our sole discretion." American says it will consider doing so only if it cannot provide a seat on one of its own flights, but doesn't specify a time limit for finding passengers a seat.
Perhaps the sheer customer neglect demonstrated by airlines could be forgiven if flights were on time, planes were impeccably clean, and bags were rarely lost. But the quality of overall airline service is the worst it's ever been, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating survey coauthored by Headley of Wichita State and Brent Bowen of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The results of the latest survey, which is based on 2007 statistics from the Department of Transportation, were not shocking to anyone who's flown in the past year. More passengers were bumped off overcrowded planes, more bags were lost, fewer flights arrived on time, and more travelers complained than in the previous year, the survey found.
Carriers say they do everything possible to take care of their customers at a time when their resources are being stretched to their limits by high fuel prices and other competitive pressures. To win back customer loyalty, American is offering a $500 travel voucher to customers inconvenienced in mid-journey with an overnight stay because of the cancellations.
For its part, the DOT also has formed a task force to come up with its own recommendations on how airlines should deal with planes stranded on the tarmac. It also has announced a new rule-making proposal to increase passenger rights and protections, including doubling the compensation for passengers with reserved seats who are bumped.
For now, passengers are mostly left to fend for themselves when the airlines let them down. DOT is urging customers who paid by credit cards for tickets on now defunct carriers like Skybus and ATA Airlines to file a claim with the credit card company.
To minimize financial losses, more travelers are considering travel insurance that typically provides reimbursement for accommodations and expenses incurred because of covered travel delays as well as around-the-clock emergency travel hotlines for finding alternative transportation, help rebooking flights or making hotel and rental car reservations.