September 3, 2013 | Kendall Creighton Fifty Shades of Stay (Home) The Anticlimax of Airline Travel in the U.S. Tuesday, September 3, 2013 Ten years ago, if we talked about all the changes in store for airline passengers concerning fees and diminishing services, most of us would have been utterly enraged. But instead, the airline industry has slowly boiled us like live frogs with fuel fees, baggage fees, fees for credit cards, fees for phone tickets, fees for carry-ons, smaller planes, reduced frequencies, no more free snacks (or drinks on some carriers), the list is endless. The industry as a whole is a case study in business ethics about how a business starts out by treating customers wonderfully and then ends up treating them like ATMs with disposable income. The NYTimes recently wrote about Air Travel, Like Other Facets of American Life, Is Not What It Used to Be. It accurately depicts the economic state of affairs in the U.S. airline industry post-bailout as well as the de-humanizing of customer service and the loss of services. Now we have fee creep, where airline fees bear no relationship to the cost of the services provided and massively exceed the amount which could be fairly accepted. What has changed today, according to the article, is the erosion of a common minimum experience. The aviation experience has been chopped into a series of moments, and each moment becomes an opportunity to upsell. You can stick with the dismal base model or you can upgrade. The result is that air travel has become a caste system. There’s the no-legroom caste; the caste that buys $50 of extra, “economy-plus” legroom; and the plentiful-legroom caste up front. The legality of oligopoly practices in U.S. aviation allows the legacy carriers to act in lockstep in terms of reducing amenities, so that no carrier is at a competitive disadvantage. Culture of Fear Then there is the culture of fear at U.S. airports. You’re constantly being reminded of the boogyman. Everyone acts like security guards instead of customer service representatives. The border patrol with the black uniforms and the guns. The fingerprinting and picture taken by the man in the booth, being asked serious questions and treated like you’re under suspicion at all times.The TSA dressing (and acting) like police officers. Even in the air, flight attendants have taken on a role of authoritarianism and acting like they’re the flying police force. Just about everyone you deal with at the airport or in the air has forgotten that they’re in a service industry. There is no sense that the rules are guidelines, everything is enforced. If you get out of line, you get yelled at. That’s what happens when profit takes a seat above dignity. This absurd state of affairs has two sets of long-suffering victims. The first is the legacy airline passengers, who endure service standards beneath those offered by legacy carriers in other countries with similar lengths (Australia, South Africa, East Asia). The lack of choice is evocative of the old Soviet Union; “If you want a meal, buy a First Class ticket”. The other victims are the shareholders, whose companies plunge into bankruptcy in this anti-competitive market. It is reasonable for all fliers to expect courteous, friendly service at any price point, no matter what extras or upsells they’ve paid for. There’s a lot of rudeness towards passengers on the part of too many airline employees. That shouldn’t be (this doesn’t happen even at McDonald’s). A race to the bottom is not the only option. Airline Fees – Bad Profits There is such a thing as “bad profits.” You annoy customers so much with petty fees that don’t add value, that in the long run you lose money. Bad profits include those generated by reducing customer service, imposing restrictive conditions, or by overcharging and nickel-and-diming. Last week Forbes wrote about the airlines being addicted to unfair fees. An example was charging passengers $100 to change flights if they got to the airport early, even when that earlier flight will depart with empty seats. Airline customers understand this, too – these charges aren’t justified by cost differences or a superior experience. Airlines are seeing fee profits roll in, which reinforces the practice to overcharge in the first place. Customers hate this and adjust their behavior to fly less. Now that a possible war is looming and the price of oil will surely go up, what new fees can we expect? The airlines already charge for a fuel cost. Will we now have to pay a double surcharge for extra fuel?! From the E-Mailbag! Paul, One of the stronger arguments in opposition to the merger is the effect huge fare increases are having on the cruise industry. Within these markets (Ft. Lauderdale and Miami) we see more than doubling of fares – with prices from Midwest cities to Ft. Lauderdale approaching $1000 RT. This is devastating for the cruise industry, which has invested billions of dollars in ships to serve these major markets. Ironically, in March 2014 it is far less expensive to fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico than to fly to Ft. Lauderdale. As a direct result, we are seeing the lowest holiday fares on Christmas season and Spring Break sailing ever. People can afford the cruise, but they react badly to the air fare to get to and from the ship. Cheers and best to you and Kate, Scott Scott, Maybe I am missing something, but in checking March airfares from Chicago or Cleveland to Fort Lauderdale or Miami they are $400-$700 RT and slightly more to Puerto Rico, but not $1,000. Carnival did announce it was cancelling its 2014 cruises in Europe due to high airfares from the US. Cruise lines in general have been hurting and offering reduced rates. This has more to do with a series of accidents starting with the Concordia in Italy having hurt the cruise line industry reputation, the poor European economy, and instability in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as to higher airfares. Florida in March is especially popular due to Spring Break vacationing by both families and college students, and this leads to higher airfares. Paul Hudson, President Flyersrights.org One of the subjects you may wish to research is the chronic cancellation of flights when the airline thinks the flight is not going to be profitable. On a recent Southwest trip, the 9am flight I was on was cancelled, ostensibly due to weather. But being a pilot myself, I looked up the aviation forecast and conditions for the destination and found the conditions and forecast were more than acceptable for the intended time of arrival. In fact the forecast conditions were for weather that would be acceptable for visual flight rules! Earlier that morning, one of the gate agents hinted the flight might be cancelled by telling me “They’re going to eliminate this flight because it’s never full enough”. When they did, I was offered a 6pm departure. You’re basically stranded! I rented a car and drove. Forget about having individual passengers bumped, this is bumping an entire flight! The cancellation of a flight for economic reasons is contrary to an airline’s federal certificate to provide public air transportation on a published schedule basis. Lying to passengers about the reason for a flight cancellation is fraud, and should result in both fines and serious damages, including potentially punitive damages awarded to passengers. The problem is that the DOT is rarely if ever penalizing airlines for such misbehavior and passengers have no practical legal recourse to make airlines desist from this practice, and the airlines know it. Under the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 airlines are exempted from all state and local consumer protection laws, and an airline can have any action brought in small claims or state courts removed to US District Courts. Federal courts have generally refused to entertain consumer class actions by airline passengers and litigation expenses generally far exceed ANY potential recoveries for consumer complaints. My suggestion is for passengers who suspect that an airline is cancelling a flight for economic reasons to, a.) Write a complaint to the DOT and FAA requesting an investigation as well as to your state and local consumer protection agencies that handle consumer fraud, with a copy to FlyersRights.org, the airline and your Congressional representatives, b.) Request that the airline provide full compensation for your alternative transportation and inconvenience. Airline employees who know in detail about such practices can also turn an airline in, and expose such fraud, which cannot really occur without management’s blessing, and potentially receive whistleblower awards based on the amount that this airline practice has cost the traveling public. FlyersRights.org has an anonymous hotline for such whistleblowers. Only when such practices are exposed and punished will they stop. Paul Hudson, President Flyersrights.org I have submitted the following comment to the FAA: It is the airlines’ greed to use smaller planes and fly more frequently to try to capture business at hubs. The entire process of flying through hubs is a flawed algorithm. I was involved, in the 1970s, in a study of store and forward communication packet transmission for the defense department. We found that a hub and spoke algorithm was inefficient and subject to failure. Now consider an aircraft as a communication packet. It is subject to the same inefficiencies and failures. Therefore, I urge you to not provide a temporary suspension of the 3 hour tarmac rule just to ameliorate the inefficient algorithm the airlines are using to try to capture markets. They can fly larger aircraft and less frequently to alleviate the decrease in available air traffic controllers and they can fly more direct routes as that study showed is more efficient. I understand that it will take some time to get these larger planes out of the moth ball status from the Arizona desert but that’s the price they will have to pay for a poor decision. Meanwhile the public should not be asked to pay for their inefficient decision.M.K. FlyersRights.org provided formal opposition to the airline request earlier this year to suspend the 3-Hour Rule when sequestration threatened to reduce air traffic control staffing. We have also long noted that a major reason for the congestion at major hub airports that you pointed out was the elimination of jumbo jets that can carry up to 500 passengers in favor of narrow body jetliners that carry less than 150 for domestic air travel. This increases air traffic at busy airports, increases air travel times (which have increased each decade since 1980) and reduced reliability. Jumbo jets were expected to be the main strategy to increase airport capacity in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago without building more airports. The use of regional jets in the past decade flying point to point and often avoiding congested airports has helped somewhat. However, airlines and airport authorities have made large investments in the hub and spoke model and wish to protect those investments at all costs. The traveling public presently has no representation on major airport authority boards, and airport authorities are generally exempt from antitrust laws. FlyersRights has proposed that passenger reps need to be on such boards. They could charge lower landing fees for jumbo jets among other ways to encourage more efficient use of airport capacity. Paul Hudson, President Flyersrights.org Subject: United now has a policy of lying United flight 3426 out of St. Louis was maintenance late, confirmed by ground crews to me, but the airline claimed weather. Stories abound of how people were denied lodging because of weather when it was really maintenance issues. J.P. Another example of airline consumer fraud that needs to be severely penalized to prevent such behaviors from becoming ingrained practices. By allowing some airlines to get away with such misbehavior it also places honest airlines who do not lie to their passengers to reduce expenses at a competitive disadvantage. Paul Hudson, President Flyersrights.org When you go to a physician’s office his or her diplomas’, awards and certifications are clearly posted on the walls. If you go to McDonalds, Wendy’s or Burger King new employees are readily identified by a “Trainee” name tag. It is time to post the pilot’s credentials in the gate area prior to boarding and on the cabin door of the aircraft. We have the right to know in whom we are intrusting our lives! After the recent Asiana air crash in San Francisco caused apparently by inexperienced and/or poor manual landing and English language skills, FlyersRights has looked into this issue. We have yet to make a formal recommendation but are leaning toward posting of basic pilot information on airline or FAA web sites such as safety and testing performance, peer rating, as well as hours of experience and disciplinary record. In short, similar type of information that is available for doctors, lawyers and some other professionals offering services to the public. Such postings we believe would raise standards for airline pilots which some believe have reached dangerously low levels. Paul Hudson, President Flyersrights.org This is economy class seating in the 1960’s on a Pan Am flight. It came from the web site Retronaut. What a difference! Thank you for your good work on behalf of all of us who now barely will fly because of the cattle car way we are treated. You should run an article about DVT and its increase because of tight leg room and lack of mobility. W.T. This is a Boeing 747 jumbo jet seating 9 across, which is now configured to seat 10 across, with space between rows and leg room greatly reduced also. Paul Hudson, President Flyersrights.org Re. an exemption for airlines, because of a ‘service’ in particular; ‘The courts in enacting the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 Congress also intended to bar all tort lawsuits such as false imprisonment, fraud or infliction of emotional distress where an airline’s conduct relates to its operations, unless the passenger was injured.’ is dangerous to democracy because it makes it easier for airlines to abuse the Patriot Act. The exemption re fraud is absurd, there is the FTC and laws governing businesses. Please file an appeal and/or a class action suit. 11 hours on a plane is at least 8 hours too long. I suggest you ask the airline staff how would they like to be treated the way the passengers are treated and what would they do about it if they were treated that way. I wonder if some day passengers would revolt and deplane themselves or upon landing hold the crew hostage for several hours so the crew learns how it feels. There are many flights with many passengers each, thus thousands of passengers. If the airlines keep on behaving as they are, perhaps statistically they are bound to push someone so far they ‘snap’ and other angry passengers may rebel instead of joining the crew in subduing the ‘snapped’ passenger. If the airlines are too stupid to see that their greed is inexorably leading to disaster then increase regulation of the airlines. Maybe the deregulation needs to be repealed. What business school teaches that the best way to have a profitable business is to abuse the customers? It appears that the airline staff have degrees from that business school. Any other business that treats customers as airlines do would have gone out of business long ago. I suggest giving airlines a little pinch in the pocket as a reminder that they need the passengers, a one-day boycott, nobody flies anywhere on December 17, the anniversary of the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk. FRO has proposed that the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 needs to be amended, since it has become under court interpretations the Airline Consumer Protection Exemption Act. Even more so in the past 8 years since it is combined with the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, more accurately described as the Class Action Elimination Act. Since 2005, only once has a court approved an airline passenger class action and that approval was subsequently rescinded. Our hope is this Congress which must run for re-election in 2014 will finally see past airline industry campaign contribution checks and their frequent flyer perks. Failing that, direct consumer or voter action may well be needed. FlyersRights is trying to identify a few (or even one) of the 535 members of Congress willing to stand up for airline passenger rights and sponsor the needed reforms. FlyersRights members can ask their two Senators and Congress persons themselves where they stand on airline passenger rights reform. A full package is available for those interested in the details. Paul Hudson, President Flyersrights.org Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights Founded by Kate Hanni in 2007, FlyersRights Paul Hudson, President of FlyersRights is funded completely through donations and our Education Fund is a 501(c)(3) charity, to which contributions are tax deductible. Thank you for your continued support!