Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Passenger Bill of Rights

We've all heard about the JetBlue debacle last week during the storm -- more than 1100 flights were canceled and some passengers were trapped in the planes for up to 10 hours. What horror! That reminded me the horror stories I heard a few years ago with Northwest Airline -- passengers were held hostage on the tarmac in Detroit for up to nine hours without food or water or working toilets.

And USA Today did a cover story on United Express. Two planes were redirected to Cheyenne the week before Christmas because a blizzard had shut down Denver International Airport. When the passengers returned the next day, the two jets had left without passengers to Indianapolis, IN and Columbus, OH, leaving the passengers stranded in Cheyenne with no way to go -- worse, they didn't even tell the passengers what was going on, nor did they reimburse their lodging and meal expenses. By the time they sent two buses to pick up the passengers (yet another day later), most had already found their own way to their destinations.

And United refused to reimburse these passengers until they learned that USA Today was going to publish that story.

Is the airline industry the only one immune to laws and common decency to treat their paying customers like dirt and get away with it?

It's not always been that way. I had some horror stories, too, but I was always treated fairly with due compensation and reimbursements. Yes, it was frustrating and inconvenient, but sometimes there was nothing you could do, especially when it's weather related or during some disasters (such as 9/11). At the very least, passengers should have the rights to the following:

- Adequate lodging and meals and transportation to and from the airport until they board another flight. When British Airways canceled my flight to London due to weather, they put me up in a hotel with dinner and breakfast vouchers, and provided a shuttle service from and to the airport. United did the same when a delayed connecting flight made me late for my flight to Hong Kong.

- An alternative flight through code share or partnered airlines. This is not automatic; sometimes airlines maxed out their capacity and it's impossible for them to accommodate all stranded passengers. In the past, you had to tell the agent the specific "code" before they would agree to put you on another flight via another carrier. The problem with that is they lose money when they do that, and airlines don't want you to know you have that right to get on someone else's flight. However, I do think a passenger should have that right and should know about it. When British Airways couldn't put me on a morning flight out to New York the following day after the cancellation, they got me on an USAirways flight.

- Better communication and priority handling. There were times when it took hours before the airline told me what was going on. It was very frustrating. Once, after being stranded in Charlotte, NC for four hours due to mechanical failure, I was disgusted to see that other passengers boarded two flights to Pittsburgh before I did. I confronted the agent, telling them that they should have attempted to put some of the stranded passengers on these flights. They told me those flights were full already. However, they should have at least let the stranded passengers know what was going on. Instead, we were all just fuming by the time our flight was finally ready to take off.

Also, stranded customers should have a special line of service (via phone or in-terminal agents) to handle their rerouting and other issues. After my British Airways flight was canceled, I was standing in line with over 200 passengers and had waited for over 2 hours before I realized I could call the airline directly. But no one told me the number to call. By the time I got to an agent, all outbound flights had been filled and I had to wait until the following day. It was very frustrating.

- Right to deplane after three hours. 3 hours is a long time to be trapped in a jet going nowhere. That's the time it takes to fly from New York to Miami. We understand that sometimes due to airport traffic or weather, takeoffs or landings are delayed. But after three hours, when food and water have been depleted and toilets are overflowing, they should allow passengers to deplane and return to the terminal, where they can at least get something to eat and drink or use the facilities. The airlines usually give excuses such as "they underestimated the time it took" (hello, after three or four hours?) or "the gates were all occupied." Just get a bus and shuttle the passengers back to the terminal, for cry'in out loud. In some cases, the passengers could actually see the gates, and could have walked over. This kind of human tragedies could have been avoided if the airlines and the airport would use some common sense. The problem is, there are no laws requiring them to do any of that; and they don't care. This has got to change.

I have been stuck on the tarmac for close to three hours. I have been stranded at an airport for more than six hours. I've lost a full day of hard-earned vacation time because of airline's incompetence.

- Compensation. I believe reimbursement of lodging, food and transportation should be the basic requirement. Beyond that, I think customers should have the right to get compensated through flight vouchers, credits, mileage, cash, or upgrade. British Airways and United (that was before they went bankrupt), for example, put me in business class. United sometimes always gave me a travel vouchers for my inconvenience. I know these things do add up and it's difficult for the airlines financially; but that's the risk and expenses of doing business and I think it's the obligation of the airlines, and any businesses, to keep their customers happy. A happy customer is a returning customer. I was so disgusted with Northwest one time that I don't think I have flown with them ever since. Same with Continental -- I avoid them like the plague.

A seasoned traveler like me knows a lot of tricks and the right questions to ask and the right demands to make. Unfortunately, most travelers are not privy to that kind of information, and in the process, they get screwed. It's heartbreaking enough to see families camping out in the terminal like refugees, and it's unimaginable to think of someone being stuck on a plane for 10 hours. Airlines must do their job to better serve their customers and find ways to resolve situations if they want to stay in business. It's time for them to stop treating their paying customers as sheep or, worse, collateral damages when something goes wrong (whether it's technical or logistic problems, or disasters). And the government should provide travelers with ways to protect themselves.

The recent reports only gave us a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. As a frequent traveler, I know of the hassle and frustration of traveling. I believe travelers should arm themselves with knowledge and "tricks." But it really is up to the airlines and the FAA to ensure that travelers are not exploited or left to their own devices. We do have rights.

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