Why I’m Against a Passenger Bill of Rights

That title is likely to make me pretty unpopular with a lot of people, but it’s my stance. I’ve mentioned it before, when the people stuck on that American flight in Austin formed the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, and I still feel the same way. So why am I bringing it up again?

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Oh, right.

If you’re breathing, you’ve heard about the JetBlue customers who were stuck on a JFK taxiway for up to 11 hours Wednesday. And it wasn’t just JetBlue. There were reports of some problems at other airlines at other airports as well. Why did it happen?

Well, the weather was horrendous. Sure snow can slow things down, but when you get ice and freezing rain like they did the other day, it’s going to cause serious havoc. Airplanes cannot depart with ice on their wings for safety reasons and taxiing in ice isn’t exactly easy, so this causes massive delays and cancellations. JetBlue, as they usually do, tried to operate as many flights as possible instead of pre-canceling as some airlines do. The series of events that followed meant that people were stuck on planes for up to 11 hours without actually going anywhere.

Without question, this is a very painful thing to deal with as a customer. Nobody wants to be stuck on a plane for any longer than necessary, and 11 hours is a nightmare. JetBlue apparently agrees, because they issued an apology, gave full refunds, and handed out free roundtrip vouchers for a future flight. No, those people won’t get their 11 hours back, but they did get what I consider to be pretty fair compensation.

Yet despite that compensation, JetBlue is still getting roasted in the media. Unfortunately, this is also helping fuel the fire for a legally binding Passenger Bill of Rights. This is not a good idea.

I think my perspective is different than many in the general public, because I come from an airline background. Now let’s think about this. Do you think there’s anyone at any airline that would see an airplane sitting on the taxiway for hours and actually want those people to be there? Not even Alitalia would do that on purpose . . . I think.

The reality is that in horrible weather as we saw on Wednesday, things are bound to break down and it’s not just the airline’s fault. The airport needs to take some blame as well. In some cases where airlines share terminals, it can even be an entirely different airline’s fault.

In these situations, airlines have two options. They could effectively shut down and pre-cancel their flights or they could try their best to operate in the weather and get as many people out as they can. Keep in mind that if people didn’t really need to travel, they didn’t have to. Every airline waived change fees for people traveling during the storm, so anyone could have easily just gone home and sat by the fire while the weather rolled in.

Instead, the people who went to the airport were those who really wanted to get to their destination. They knew there would be delays, and they must have prepared themselves mentally. That being said, nothing would prepare someone to sit on a taxiway for 11 hours, so media headlines were born.

What exactly would a Passenger Bill of Rights do? Well there are different versions floating around, but most of them involve hefty compensation for long delays. Of course, airlines today don’t compensate you for weather delays by rule. For massive delays, enlightened airlines like JetBlue understand the value of handing out vouchers, and they do it on their own.

But what if government-mandated rules were put into place requiring cash compensation? What if people by law couldn’t be held on an aircraft over a certain amount of time? Well, airlines would just pre-cancel a lot more flights. And with flights as full as they are, it’s going to be impossible to reaccommodate those people quickly once the weather has passed. That means all those people who really need to travel would be out of luck for several days.

One thing to remember here is that not everyone was stuck on the taxiway for 11 hours. JetBlue still managed to operate about half their flights systemwide, and that’s no small feat when most of your network involves hard-hit Boston, New York, and Washington. With a Passenger Bill of Rights, JetBlue probably would have pre-canceled a lot of those flights to avoid having a couple of flights get stuck on the taxiway. That would have angered a lot more people than it would have helped.

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8 Responses to Why I’m Against a Passenger Bill of Rights

  1. Anonymous says:

    In our case we weren’t one of the unfortunates stranded on the tarmac but, this experience wasn’t fun either…

    My family was scheduled to depart on Jet Blue 2/14/07 from ft. lauderdale to JFK. Automated phone system kept saying departing on schedule. Online it first listed flight as delayed then cancelled yet representative insisted her screen showed it was going to depart. (How is that for the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.) Went to the airport. No boards showing status of flights. Told by skycap it was cancelled. Lines out the door. Told by personnel to go home and call from there. Called Jet Blue again and told nothing is flying into JFK. NOT TRUE! They were contending that their flights were cancelled due to weather but only seemed to apply to them. Apparently they didn’t have any clout in the pecking order. Hung passengers out to dry! Their once friendly demeanor rapidly deteriorated. They played the weather card and wouldn’t offer compensation so my family got stuck with an extra day stay and car rental. This is what they call service…. NOT!
    The next day Jet Blue didn’t even answer their phones or have an automated system to check departures (or arrivals) There was only a message to ” check online”. Did they think that everyone had internet access and were carrying a computer in their pocket? The thursday flight took off a couple of hours late and stayed on the tarmac at LGA upon arrival. The pilot said at first there was someone in their spot and then it was “there is a bit of a traffic jam”
    This airline dropped the ball all the way around. Do you think that they shouldn’t have to take any responsibility for their substandard service and utter incompetence. “Sorry” just doesn’t cut it and shouldn’t have to.
    They should have a Bill of Rights to force them to make ammends if they don’t have the sense to do it on their own.

  2. The CF says:

    I agree, that sounds like a horrible experience. But what exactly do you want from them?

    Their operation melted down and they’re trying to put the pieces back together. They’ve even chartered planes to get people where they’re going. Once this whole debacle is over, I would imagine that everyone affected will receive some sort of voucher or other compensation. Would that be sufficient for you?

    I’d say that’s good customer service (if it happens). If they do it, you’ll fly them again. If not, you’ll fly someone else. It’s not something that should be regulated. You should vote with your pocketbook.

    (Glad to hear you finally made it to NYC)

  3. David Alpert says:

    A big cause of this problem seems to be the way airline delays are reported. The FAA makes the airlines reports the percentage of delayed and cancelled flights, but not how long they were cancelled.

    As a result, airlines are already operating under a twisted set of incentives. In the AA fiasco, they moved planes in and out that were still on time, ahead of the long-delayed plane, because that’s how operations centers have learned to maximize their on time percentages.

    This problem will only get solved if the airlines either have bigger penalties for delaying a plane 8-11 hours compared to the negative effects of having a worse on-time rating, or if the reporting is changed so people and the press know how much of that is happening.

    You say passengers should vote with their pocketbook and that’s nice, but if passengers don’t know their actual likelihood of getting stranded on each airline, they can’t make an informed decision. I was once stranded on an AA plane for 3 hours landing at JFK because the baggage handlers were overworked, and then they had to bump international flights ahead of ours for some reason. Annoying but not the end of the world, but it would be nice to know if AA is generally more susceptible to this problem happening (they seem to have horribly understaffed ground crew).

    People tend to make judgments about patterns based on a small number of anecdotal experiences – they’ll vow to never fly an airline again after a bad experience, but how to know if another airline is really any better? We need good data to answer that, like releasing the number of delays and average length of delays by type of delay (unavailable ground crew, maintenance, weather, etc); the longest delay or the 80th percentile length of delay; and keeping track of how often one delay compounds into a longer delay, such as when a maintenance problem delays a flight half an hour, but then when it’s ready to go there’s no ground crew to push it back, delaying it another half hour, and then when it arrives the baggage handlers aren’t able to unload it for another hour. I believe right now the airlines simply mark that as a maintenance delay, but it’s understaffed crews with inflexible operations that make the delay 2 hours instead of half an hour.

  4. The CF says:

    I couldn’t agree more, but you might be surprised to know that this information is readily available.

    On PriceGrabber Travel, we show on time information including on time %, average delay, and the number of times the flight operated over the past 60 days. We get this information from the excellent site at FlightStats.com which has even greater detail.

    Let’s look at JetBlue 751, for example. That was the flight from JFK to Cancun that sat for 9 hours the other day. Click this link to follow along.

    The flight gets a 1.9 out of 5 stars based on the last 60 days of operation. It’s on time 48% of the time and delayed an average of 23 minutes. Not enough detail? The chart shows that 4 times in the last 60 it was excessively late, 9 times it was very late, 18 times it was late, and 29 times it was on time. The maximum delay was 79 minutes (obviously this doesn’t include Wednesday’s info yet).

    Click around and you’ll see you can get this information by route, by airline, etc. It’s excellent stuff.

  5. I hear what you are saying and I normally side with letting businesses work things out on their own and letting the public vote with their pocketbooks. But the problems are too systemic and across the board. I don’t see many options for the traveling public. I agree that cash compensation doesn’t cure this problem. That’s a feel good band-aid that does not address root cause. And your concern about pre-canceling?…well JetBlue is already doing that in the face of continued weather issues. Mostly what is lacking are clear guidelines and proper communication on the part of the airlines. The traveling public simply has no idea what to expect and the airlines are generally lousy and letting them know. Its all about setting expectations. This is a problem that need comprehensive attention from the airlines, it has for year and it hasn’t been fixed. The airlines are setting themselves up for failure and for a bill of rights that will take the control for fixing this problem out of their hands.

  6. William Alberts - Austin, Texas says:

    I read your editorial opposing creation of a “bill of rights” for air travel. I have generally been following the these issues – particularly as regards the December 29, 2006 fiasco with American’s flight 1348 – and cannot agree that these are issues to be left to private industry.

    At least as to flight 1348, the suggestion that the excessive ground hold resulted solely from screw-ups and miscommunications is not true. American subjected those passengers to intentional mistreatment.

    After diverting flight 1348 from DFW to Austin, the passengers on that flight became (solely for commercial reasons) American’s lowest, rather than highest, priority – directly contrary to what common sense and law would seem to have dictated. Many American planes left Austin and landed at DFW while 1348 continued to sit on the tarmac. Indeed, American’s conduct in relation to flight 1348 was so egregious as to be arguably criminal.

    Do you really mean to suggest that a private commercial airline’s discretion to detain passenger/citizen for whatever length it deems appropriate (in return for flight vouchers on the same abusive airline) should be governed only by market forces? Protection and curtailment of individual freedoms is fundamentally a governmental function.

    The Airlines do not operate in a truly free market and, as experience has already shown, such market forces cannot and will not cause the Airlines to consistently adhere to even minimum standards of decency. Indeed, it was market forces that likely motivated American to so mistreat the passengers of flight 1348. American was aware that it had lost any hope of retaining such passengers’ goodwill or business, so, rather than alienate passengers (potential repeat customers) on other flights, American chose to heap ever greater inconvenience on the passengers on flight 1348. The Airlines will continue to do this every time if not prevented by law.

    Keeping a passenger on an airplane against their will for safety reasons may be within the authority of the pilot, but keeping them on for commercial reasons is not. In all other walks of life such a decision would result, correctly, in the perpetrators being jailed. Can one really argue that the passengers on flight 1348 should not have been afforded an enforceable legal right to decide to deplane after some set number of hours of commercial confinement?

    In response to “market forces” (but actually as an utterly cynical attempt to avoid legal regulation) American Airlines now claims to have altered its policies to be more protective of passengers by purportedly forbidding ground delays of more than 4 hours. However, it should be no surprise that this change does not appear in American’s recently updated contract of carriage or even their customer service commitment statement (although they haven’t neglected to disclaim liability for any future failures to provide even minimal food, water, or sanitary facilities to imprisoned passengers).

  7. The CF says:

    Indeed, it was market forces that likely motivated American to so mistreat the passengers of flight 1348. American was aware that it had lost any hope of retaining such passengers’ goodwill or business, so, rather than alienate passengers (potential repeat customers) on other flights, American chose to heap ever greater inconvenience on the passengers on flight 1348. The Airlines will continue to do this every time if not prevented by law.

    I can guarantee you that was not their thinking. An airline generally looks at these types of disruptions from an operational point of view. The idea is to run as many flights on time as you possibly can which is expected to result in the inconveniencing of the fewest customers. In this situation, my guess is that American’s recovery systems decided that they could keep their operation more intact if they continued to run a regular schedule. I would be very surprised if flight 1348 was held on the ground purposefully. More likely, the airline simply didn’t have the systems in place to ensure that a higher priority was given to that flight even though it may not have been the “optimal” solution.

    Don’t confuse this response as being an argument that the people on flight 1348 were treated fairly. That’s definitely not true. But I do believe that market forces have worked quite well here. American has seen large amounts of negative PR and they were forced to respond due to that. They have put systems into place to ensure that flights don’t get stranded like 1348 did.

    If it happens again, American will likely have run out of political capital and will start losing customers. JetBlue is feeling the heat now – they’re the butt of every joke on late night tv – but they responded quite well to the problems they faced. I expect them to recover nicely from this, and it’s their response to customer demands that has made that possible.

  8. Pingback: Passenger “bill of rights” for New York state « Evan Sparks’s Aviation Policy Blog

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