Airline complaints surged 20% last year as airline passengers complained about being squeezed into smaller seats and flights that are becoming even more packed, according to data collected by the DOT.
Consumer complaints against U.S. airlines rose sharply in 2012, even as the carriers claimed a better record of on-time arrivals and luggage handling.
Those disparate findings, from a report released on Monday, highlight the continuing tug of war between an industry struggling to find ways to make money and a traveling public often unhappy with those choices.
As the population collectively grows broader, carriers keep shrinking the size of seats in order to stuff more people into planes. Empty middle seats that might provide a little more room have vanished.
Then there’s the issue of overbookings, when ticketed passengers get turned away because an airline has sold too many seats.
United Airlines had the highest consumer complaint rate of the 14 airlines included in the report, with 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers.
Airlines that overbook used to be able to find a passenger who would volunteer to give up a seat in exchange for cash, a free ticket or other compensation with the expectation of catching another flight. Not anymore. Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, said airline customer service has been steadily decreasing for the past 30 years.
“Every decade since the 1980s the industry has gotten slower in its performance and less reliable. Prior to that, it got faster and more reliable every decade,” said Hudson.
He says his group would like to see more pressure from the federal government on airlines to provide passengers with more support for excessive flight delays, overlooking, the amount of room provided for passengers and lost luggage.
“We’re at a break-point here – a fork in the road,” he says. “We’ve pretty much come to the end of the line with the philosophy of deregulation will solve all the problems. Clearly that has failed. People need to realize they are in a black hole when it comes to consumer rights with the airlines.”
He urges consumers to contact their members of Congress to urge greater regulation and more consumer rights for airline passengers. Hudson also suggests that consumers take advantage of the tools available to them to help avoid some of the common problems.
He recommends the following:
Check on the on-time statistic for a flight before booking (you can find the data on www.flightstats.com).
Travel without checking bags to keep down fees and keep your property with you. Even if you check bags, make sure you keep essential medicines with you on the plane.
Look at weather reports for potential delays both the day you fly and the day before.
Compensate for the typical lack of food available on-board by planning meals prior to traveling.
Know the airline’s policy on cancellations and changing flights prior to booking.
Use the major travel sites to compare air fares and schedules.
Going, Going, Sold! Travelers Bid on Seat Upgrades
There’s a new trend developing among many international airlines that appears to be gaining traction: “Upgrade auction,” where passengers bid against each other for seats in business or first class.
It’s already available on seven international airlines and some frequent flyers aren’t too happy.
Upgrading a coach ticket into business or first class traditionally requires redeeming miles or spending a fixed amount of cash. Elite frequent flyers also receive upgrades for free or by using certificates bestowed on them for their loyalty.
The way it works is, several days before your flight, the airline contacts you and asks if you’d like to bid for a seat in the next class of service. The airline sets either a minimum bid or a bidding range. You put in your offer, wait a couple of days, and if yours was the winning bid, the airline notifies you to complete the transaction. If not, you’re not any poorer.
Upgrade auctions are currently available on Virgin Atlantic, Czech Airlines, El Al, TAP Portugal, Brussels Airlines, Etihad, Air New Zealand and Copa Airlines. They are powered by a platform created by the U.S.-based company PlusGrade.
While no U.S. airline has yet to introduce an auction format for upgrades, it’s likely only a matter of time. Airlines see this as a potential gold mine since they don’t make money from empty seats.
Some feel that auctions will erode the value of airline loyalty programs, which often give elite (or even non-elite) members first dibs on upgrade seats.
Hidden Airline Fees Are Not A Form Of “Free Speech”
That asterisk is gone for good from airfare prices now that the U.S. Supreme Court has dismissed an airline-industry challenge to making all airlines prominently display the total cost of a ticket.
Several U.S. airlines argued that it’s unfair for them to have to disclose the total cost of a ticket to passengers, but the Supreme Court begged to differ.
Ever since the DOT told U.S. airlines they’d have to advertise the total cost of a ticket when touting their fares, the industry has been fighting back.
Spirit Airlines Inc., with support from Southwest Airlines Co. and Allegiant Air LLC, argued that the rule violated carriers’ freedom of speech by preventing them from emphasizing the impact myriad fees and taxes have on their total costs.
Airlines don’t like this because it makes it seem like their fares are more expensive.
The Supreme Court also kept the requirement in place that airlines have to let customers cancel reservations without penalty within a 24-hour window or at least let them hold seats for that time without paying.
“This is the fairest way of travelling. There are no extra fees in terms of excess baggage or anything – it is just a kilo is a kilo,” chief executive Chris Langton told ABC Radio.
Less happy will be those who see the move as discriminatory against large people. However, families buying seats for their children will be rather more pleased.
This type of pricing may not make sense for larger carriers because it would be inconvenient to verify passenger weight and the long lines would be a problem.
Putting airline baggage fees into place “took years,” air travel analyst Rick Seaney told FareCompare. Adding policies that deal with passenger weight would likely take even longer.
Plus, overweight passengers could find ways to escape extra fees, possibly through the Americans with Disabilities Act. Any airline that tried the system “would probably be quickly boycotted and picketed by half a dozen equality organizations,” argued Craig LaRosa, a principal at Continuum, an innovation and design consultancy.
Then there’s the question of how customers would react to being put on a scale by airlines – an extra indignity on top of the seemingly endless fees and TSA screenings they already endure.
While a pay-by-weight system would not fly for a major airline, something like it might work for smaller and budget operations, like Spirit, offering a discount to low-weight passengers.
Ten years from now, stepping on a scale before going through security could be just one more indignity central to the flying experience.
“Fly the Friendly Skies?”
United Airlines vs. Passengers
United Airlines has taken a beating lately, and rightfully so. From a flight diversion after parents questioned the appropriateness of an in-flight movie for kids, to a travel writer thrown off a UAL flight for snapping photo of his seat, recent news has not reflected well on the airline.
Walter Wilson, FlyersRight member, pilot and airline dispatcher, sees a trend with the United Airlines crew. He gave his thoughts to FlyersRights:
“Presumably most of the larger carriers have older crew members,” Wilson said. “Relatively newer airlines such as JetBlue, Southwest/AirTran, Republic Airways Holding’s Frontier, etc. typically have younger crew members.”
Wilson continued, “Older crews, disgruntled because of the consolidation with Continental, sometimes take a no-nonsense approach with passengers that can seem very cold and often perceived as just plain rude”.
“They have been dealing with their internal issues and in turn take it out on their customers,” Wilson explained. “Sadly, they have the Federal Aviation Regulation on their side which they can abuse, with somewhat of a power trip, as passengers must follow crew members instructions.”
Outrage of the Week!
Another Baggage Handler Accused of Stealing, $84K in Belongings.
This week A baggage handler at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport was arrested after prosecutors say he was caught on video stealing $84,000 in valuables from passengers’ bags.
According to ABC News, the 23-year-old man is accused of stuffing guns, jewelry, watches and more into his backpack over an eight-month period.
As one expert points out, this kind of thing keeps happening again and again simply because there are always going to be times when no one is watching the bags.
And because TSA officials don’t encourage using locks on your luggage, as agents would just have to cut them off to inspect bags anyway, what’s a passenger to do to safeguard their valuables? The best and probably the safest solution? Unfortunately, it’s probably just: Don’t fly with valuables.
Thanks to FlyersRights member, JR, for the tipoff!
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