First of all, let’s get it straight. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, nor Europe’s efforts to liberalize commercial aviation for travel within its member states, are a total abolishment of regulations. Operations and safety standards are still closely regulated and airlines are subject to the same marketing and advertising laws as other businesses, and in many cases have more intense regulation. Does your plumber or auto repair guy have to give you a full and final cost for the work you are hiring them to do before they start, or does it typically end up they find something else to fix while they are at it and scare you into spending several hundred or thousands of dollars more?
A display warning passengers to ‘Expect Disruption’ to British Airways flights, is pictured inside Terminal 5 of London’s Heathrow Airport on May 29, 2017. Passengers faced a third day of disruption at Heathrow Monday as British Airways canceled short-haul flights after a global computer crash that unions blamed on the outsourcing of IT service to India, a point management disputes.
That said this weekend’s British Airways meltdown, which has stranded tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of passengers, reflects on some areas where the EU and the U.S. governments should look at more regulation. I again stay away from the word re-regulation as it is a red herring term airline executives and their lobbyists use to focus the discussion on areas such as low fares and new entrants into the market. The idea is that the only alternative to the current state of the industry is to go back to high fares and fewer choices. It’s not! However, what’s at stake is quite large. The travel industry is a $7 trillion annual business accounting for 1 in 10 jobs worldwide, so when airlines make traveling miserable, the impact is felt much more broadly.
Demonstrators protest United Airlines at O’Hare International Airport on April 11, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.The protest was in response to airport police officers physically removing passenger Dr. David Dao from his seat and dragging him off the airplane, after he was requested to give up his seat for United Airline crew members on a flight from Chicago to Louisville.
Here are issues I think need to be addressed through increased regulation if the airlines won’t agree to them on a commercial basis. They should be endorsed as necessary and acceptable basic business practices the same way airlines aren’t allowed to dispatch a flight with only two of the four engines working.
Special Regulations For Congested/Premium Airports:
Most of the infrastructure airlines operate from and use to host the flying part of the business, in other words, airports and terminals, was financed by you the taxpayer. While in some cases they are operated or owned under leases by private entities and various authorities, chances are the there were significant tax breaks and incentives, government issued or backed bonds and other ways to access your wallet that has enabled airlines to operate to and from them. To expand these saturated airports, where it’s even possible, would mean that you would again be called on to foot a large chunk of the bill.
For that reason, I think all airlines operating in and out of these preferred, saturated airports such as Newark, JFK, LaGuardia, Washington Reagan, O’Hare in Chicago or London’s Heathrow Airport where they can charge higher fares should have to adhere to some additional rules.
Then Vice President Joe Biden speaks at an event attended by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to unveil plans for new area infrastructure projects on July 27, 2015 in New York City. The highlight of the event was an announcement that a new LaGuardia airport will be built.
There should be rules governing minimum seat space in economy class. As the world gets taller and wider, last year British Airways announced it was going to a 29-inch pitch on the planes it uses to serve its European flights. Pitch is the distance between seat rows. American Airlines is apparently following suit here in the U.S. That’s a reduction of about 10% from what had been the standard. Airlines have also been stuffing in more seats per row, meaning on a Boeing 777 that up until several years ago would have nine seats across in economy class, there are now 10 seats in many cases. Seat width has shrunk by as much as two inches, again about a 10% reduction.
The freedom to come up with an airline concept where you treat your customers like trash, charge low fares and then nickel and dime them from the time they click buy until they get off your plane is certainly a valid free market approach. Look at Ryanair. The tradeoff is low-cost airlines like Allegiant and Ryanair have brought air services to many regional airports where it was lacking.
Let’s have a minimum seat pitch and width airlines can use when flying into these premium airports you and I have spent a pretty penny to fund. If British Airways, American or other airlines want to create a product that melds your knees into the back of the seat in front of you, let them do it in at airports that have extra capacity and need new service.
Through check-in of your baggage when connecting flights on separate tickets:
Airlines should be required to through check your baggage when you have two valid and separate tickets that would as a single ticket qualify for a connecting flight. The trend is actually the opposite and has been gaining steam.
You may be surprised to know as much as the airline business is presented as a highly competitive dogfight, there are plenty of places airlines work together, selling and buying from each other, when it suits their needs. Ground handling services, catering, GDS, leasing of gates and slots as well as formal alliances that have antitrust immunity, enabling partner airlines to coordinate schedules and pricing as well as put their airline codes on flights they don’t operate are all places that airlines seem to be able to work together to enhance their profitability.
Funnily enough, these same airlines that have anti-trust immunity to operate as a single commercial entity when it comes to how much they will charge you are increasingly making it harder for you to buy the lowest fares, even when you transit through these airports I mention above that you and I pay for.
For example, if you book a flight on British Airways from Boston to Heathrow either paying or using your miles, then buy a connecting flight also on British Airways to say Rome because the cost of the two tickets was cheaper than what British Airways would sell you if you bought it as one ticket, BA will only check your luggage as far as London. I use this as an extreme example as BA has made itself into one of the most customer unfriendly airlines out there in short order. This means even if you redeemed miles for your ticket from London to Rome and paid for your flight from Boston to London because BA had no mileage seats the entire way through, at London you would have to collect and then recheck your bags.
This practice has been extended by quite a few airlines between their flights and those of partners, even ones they have antitrust protection to operate with. For example, United will no longer through check your luggage to a Lufthansa flight on a separate PNR.
The only reason passengers buy separate tickets is they are trying to save money using fares that the airline is publishing and selling or because it is harder than ever to redeem those miles for free tickets, they are mixing mileage redemption and paid tickets to create an itinerary that works.
For airlines, making you check your baggage twice is simply an exercise in making sure they don’t lose the opportunity to charge you twice for extra luggage. It also puts the passenger in the position of having to abide by potentially two different policies on what is charged for checked baggage. It further adds to the costs you and I pay to staff immigrations, customs and in some cases security. What makes it even worse for the passenger is if your bag is lost on the first flight and shows up late, the first airline is under no obligation to send your back to where you are, so under my scenario, you are in Rome, your bag is at a lost and found in London.
Rerouting passengers onto other airlines when flights are canceled are delayed:
So the airline cancels your flight. The next flight they can get you on is two days later, yet there are other airlines with open seats and your airline won’t rebook you onto their flights. This has to change. In fact, there was a time when airport personnel could widely endorse revenue tickets over to competitors when their own flights are disrupted. Well, that happens less and less, your trip be damned. The reason is pretty straight-forward. Your airline has to pay the other airline to fly you, sometimes more than you paid for the ticket, so it loses both your fare and it may actually cost it something extra to get you there as promised. Better to just let you sit around than lose your revenue.
When you’ve paid in advance for being flown from Point A to C at a specific time, whether they like it or not, airlines need to realize your business or vacation time is valuable. When your airline cancels flight or delays it more than X hours it should be mandated to find you an available seat on competitors in the same cabin class of service you paid for. This would also get airlines working harder to get you rerouted or use weather as an excuse, as in the weather canceled your flight with us, but it didn’t impact the airline flying the same route leaving from the same airport.
Providing accommodations, meal vouchers or sleeping arrangements during overnight delays:
Outside of weather and things like acts of terrorism, issues truly outside of airlines’ control, if you get delayed overnight airlines should be required to pay for your overnight hotel accommodations, provide meal vouchers and transportation to and from the airport. Understanding that during mass outages, hotels might be booked, airlines be required to have a plan in place to bring in cots, blankets, food and beverages to you stranded at the terminal you probably helped fund.
Make sure CEOs are on the front lines when things go south:
Airline CEOS should be mandated to personally provide updates every three hours during mass disruptions such as we have seen with Delta and BA via shared social media video.
One thing that comes back again and again when things go wrong in a big way is that there was a lack of communication. The airline workers in front of you don’t have updated information. Making the CEO give a brief update every three hours until things are fixed might highlight the need to CEOs to have better backup plans.
Protect helpful employees:
Frontline airline employees have been made into tax collectors by management looking to extract every penny of value out of their relationship with you. While the industry used to be guided by what was called “waivers and favors” making exceptions, real or perceived, to what is an industry guided by arcane policies can be grounds for termination. It’s an interesting change from the 1980s when then BA CEO Colin Marshall implemented a program that every employee went through called “Putting People First.” It actually encouraged employees to bend the rules when necessary to make customers happy and create loyalty. It worked pretty well as the carrier went from one with very poor customer service to very good service and from record losses to record profits.
I would put in a regulation that airline employees can’t be terminated for simply helping you or in the case of Dr. Dao not harassing and threatening you when you aren’t impacting safe operations. As I have written before, I think a pretty good guiding policy for airline CEOs would be to have staff treat you in the same way they would want to see their mother treated if she was flying today.
There are probably other areas that might need a bit more regulation, but I think if my suggestions were implemented air travel would be a better experience, customers would be more satisfied and airlines would still find plenty of ways to turn a profit.
Whether you agree with all my points, some of them or none of them, remember the discussion isn’t about reregulating the industry. It’s about tweaking regulations to provide a better industry for workers and customers as well as management and shareholders.