mardi, mars 06, 2007

flying the unfriendly skies and the airline passenger bill of rights

Let's face it: Air travel just isn't a glamorous way to get from point A to point B. It usually involves hassles and delays. Ash, Leo, and I spent about half an hour talking about airline strandings and air travel horror stories last night at dinner. (And we didn't even talk about the completely gratuitous stress United caused on our recent trip to South America.) I'm seriously wishing that we could use some floo powder and apparate to our desired destinations.

Leo and I had a great experience (once we were finally on the plane and outside of the US) with United on our trip to Argentina and Uruguay last month. But I am no longer interested in flying United because of their new policy that doesn't allow for passengers to choose their seats in advance. I'm not talking about wanting to book an exit row. I'm talking basics here, like sitting with my travelling companion and not being in the last row when I have a connecting flight to catch (within a very small window of time).
  • Did I mention that we booked several months in advance?
  • Did I mention that we paid more to book our trip on the phone (not online) with an agent to make sure that we were seated together, but that never made it into our reservation?
  • Did I mention that due to a weird issue with my married name, United doesn't acknowledge that I am the same Happy A. as the HappyA.-____ on my frequent flier account (in spite of the fact that US-government-issued passport and CA-government-issued driver's license prove my identity and my correct name)? Did I mention that I've tried to correct that at least 3 times since I got divorced, but that United still doesn't have it right in their system? Did I mention that that means I can't use their Web site for any of their passenger-specific services?
  • Did I mention that we weren't able to sit together on the US legs of the flight? (We were able to convince a passenger on the IAD —> EZE leg to trade seats.)
We spent the 24 hours before the SAN—> EZE flight and EZE—> SAN flight on the phone with call center agents who could do nothing for us, got to the airport 3 hours early and dealt with gate agents in the US who were unhelpful and left it to us to find a way to get a passenger to change seats so that we could sit together, etc.

We also had ridiculously tight connections to make and were seated so far back on the plane that we literally sprinted to make our connecting flights. (Don't even get me started on having to re-clear security at IAD when I've just gotten off an international flight with better security procedures and am still in a secure area of the United terminal. Or on how long it takes to get through customs at IAD — I know, that's not United's fault but contributed to the overall mayhem of that sleep-deprived morning.)

What makes it all the more curious is that one of us was a full-fare-paying customer, the other was "reward" travel. The "reward" ticket was redeeming frequent flier miles and part of the customer loyalty program. The whole experience was such a hassle and a disappointment that it has singlehandedly ensured that I will only consider United as the carrier of last resort, in spite of the fact that I have a credit card with them and enough miles to redeem for another trip or two.

But there are worse things that can happen ... although I sat on the tarmac at CDG (again on United) for 5 hours in January 2004, it's not as bad as what happens to some folks. Now, thanks to the horror story of a constituent, two California politicians have introduced the Airline Passengers Bill of Rights. I hope it passes without being too watered down.

Some of the provisions ...
All American air carriers shall abide by the following standards to ensure the safety, security and comfort of their passengers:

  • Establish procedures to respond to all passenger complaints within 24 hours and with appropriate resolution within 2 weeks.
  • Notify passengers within ten minutes of a delay of known diversions, delays and cancellations via airport overhead announcement, on aircraft announcement, and posting on airport television monitors.
  • Establish procedures for returning passengers to terminal gate when delays occur so that no plane sits on the tarmac for longer than three hours without connecting to a gate.
  • Provide for the essential needs of passengers during air- or ground-based delays of longer than 3 hours, including food, water, sanitary facilities, and access to medical attention.
  • Provide for the needs of disabled, elderly and special needs passengers by establishing procedures for assisting with the moving and retrieving of baggage, and the moving of passengers from one area of airport to another at all times by airline personnel.
  • Publish and update monthly on the company’s public web site a list of chronically delayed flights, meaning those flight delayed thirty minutes or more, at least forty percent of the time, during a single month.
  • Compensate “bumped” passengers or passengers delayed due to flight cancellations or postponements of over 12 hours by refund of 150% of ticket price.
  • The formal implementation of a Passenger Review Committee, made up of non-airline executives and employees but rather passengers and consumers – that would have the formal ability to review and investigate complaints.
  • Make lowest fare information, schedules and itineraries, cancellation policies and frequent flyer program requirements available in an easily accessed location and updated in real-time.
  • Ensure that baggage is handled without delay or injury; if baggage is lost or misplaced, the airline shall notify customer of baggage status within 12 hours and provide compensation equal to current market value of baggage and its contents.
  • Require that these rights apply equally to all airline code-share partners including international partners.
And here's what got it all started.
One woman leading the way for traveler rights
Wine country real-estate agent takes fight for bill of rights to Capitol Hill
The Associated Press
Updated: 12:42 p.m. PT Feb 22, 2007

NAPA, Calif. - For more than eight miserable hours, Kate Hanni sat aboard a grounded plane at a Texas airport, yards from apparently empty gates. A few weeks after that December ordeal, the brassy blond real estate agent from California’s wine country took her fight for a passengers’ bill of rights to Capitol Hill.

And politicians are listening.

On Saturday, as JetBlue was in the middle of a meltdown that left some passengers trapped aboard planes almost half a day, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would prohibit airlines from keeping travelers stuck on the tarmac for longer than three hours.

And Hanni’s congressman, Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson, plans to file a similar bill in the House. He credits her with calling the issue to his attention.

“We need the legislation right now because the airlines won’t police themselves,” Hanni, 46, said recently in an interview in her bright Napa living room, where windows frame vineyard-covered hillsides.

A mother of two who moonlights as the lead singer of a funk band, Hanni has become the unlikely leader of a gathering movement. She has apparently tapped into a deep well of anger among many travelers.

Hanni’s American Airlines flight was diverted from Dallas to Austin on Dec. 29 because of storms. The agonizing wait on the tarmac, she said, was only the beginning of her frustrations.

Hanni, her husband and two sons waited another 2½ hours at the baggage claim before being told the bags would remain on the plane because the flight would continue on in the morning, she said.

American offered the put-out passengers only $10 discount vouchers for hotel rooms, Hanni said. (A spokesman for American could not confirm the amount but said the customer contract makes clear the company does not fully cover lodgings for weather-related cancellations.)

When she finally arrived in Dallas the next day to make her connecting flight to Mobile, Ala., Hanni said, a gate agent informed her that her bags were on the next flight to Mobile, but she was not.

“We’re not going to quibble with the fact that we put our customers in a situation that they never should have been in,” American spokesman Tim Wagner said. Passengers were kept on the plane in hopes of still getting them to Dallas that same day, he said.

In the end, Hanni said, it took her, her husband and two sons 57 hours to travel from San Francisco to Mobile, finally arriving at their ultimate destination, a lavish Gulf Coast spa, late on New Year’s Eve.

Hanni said her December trip was supposed to be a restorative vacation, after she was jumped and beaten in June by a man in a ski mask at a house she was trying to sell. She ended up spending a big part of her trip in cramped airline seats and hotel rooms, wearing the same clothes day after day.

After returning home in January, Hanni began gathering the stories of fellow passengers’ frustrations by e-mail. She posted many of them on a blog that quickly became the focal point of the passengers’ bill of rights campaign.

By the end of the month, Hanni was in Washington, lobbying for pro-passenger legislation.

The movement gained momentum last week when a snowstorm left passengers trapped inside JetBlue planes at New York’s Kennedy Airport for up to 10½ hours. JetBlue introduced its own customer bill of rights earlier this week.

Along with imposing the three-hour limit, Boxer’s bill would require airlines to provide food, water and sanitary bathrooms to passengers stuck on the tarmac.

Thompson’s bill would also require airlines to keep passengers updated on the reasons for the delays, reveal which flights are chronically delayed and strive to return lost bags in 24 hours.

Airlines oppose such legislation, arguing they know better than politicians how to fix the problems.

“We think that inflexible standards that would be imposed through some sort of mandatory legislation could easily have the unintended effect of inconveniencing customers more in some situations,” said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airlines’ main industry trade group.

Since Dec. 29, when 67 American flights were stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours, the airline has revised its policy to ensure passengers do not spend more than four hours in grounded planes, Wagner said. The company has sent out apologies and ticket vouchers to about 5,000 passengers affected that day, he said.

Nevertheless, Hanni said she does not plan to give up her fight to make air travel less unpleasant.

“I’m going to take it all the way,” she said, “no matter what it takes.”

1 commentaire:

Anonyme a dit…

three things to add:

1. re: your divorce. i still believe those people are willingly violating your civil rights and causing you undue emotional stress by dredging up the tawdry details of a failed marriage every time you book a flight. they are doing this maliciously because of deep-seated resentment by company higher-ups about the struggles of the feminist movement. ok, maybe i don't truly believe that, but i bet you if i spend five minutes in the "attorneys" section of the yellow pages i can come up with the names of 15 people who WILL believe it, for 30% of the proceeds of a nuisance lawsuit against united. now call united and find out what they think about my plan. : )

2. you made nowhere near enough references to "united airlines,"seating procedures," and "tickets" in your text. how else is this page going to make it to the top ten hits in searches for the above terms?

3. a point of my own: i am not, i believe, an unreasonable person. when i take a bus, and i pay 1-3 dollars a ticket, i don't expect drink service, blankets, compensation for delays, or even sober drivers. but i paid fourteen hundred and fifty fucking dollars for that flight, and for that kind of fee i expect timely departures, timely arrivals, courteous service, no-hassle connections, meals that look and taste like they were once a vibrant part of the biosphere, and helpful in-flight and airport personnel. h-e-l-p-f-u-l. as in "hey look, i have a brain in this here head! why don't i use it as something other than a paperweight for snot?"

look. i'm willing to compromise. if it helps make the economics work out, keep your tasty, tasty pretzels, and cut out the in-flight entertainment. i'll bring a book and an mp3 player. oh wait, i already do that, because i really can't stand to be subjected to another hugh grant lowest-common-denominator movie. just make it work. please. and for god's sake, don't let ATA take milwaukee's fresh-baked cookies away.

ok, rant over.


PS: the most frustrating part? everything i want out of united is already out there. both continental and american easily allowed me to modify our seating arrangements for bonnaroo (i reserved on american and bought on continental) with a minimum of hassle. as far as courteous and efficient service, i received that on united itself as soon as i left US airspace. and then again at the BA airport. so what's so hard?