Monday, August 17, 2009

Business Travel Coalition Ultimatum to Airlines Re Passengers' Rights Law: Straighten Up and Fly Right. Or Else.

I am constantly dismayed by the lack of clarity some of my colleagues — in the MSM and in blogs (jeez, I hate that word “blogosphere”) — show when it comes to discussing the passengers’ bill of rights legislation, which is going to happen in one form or another.

These colleagues, some of whom haven’t learned anything since 2007, keep arguing with me about the “merits.” Merits, schmerits. They simply don’t understand the inevitability. Or that we are at the edge of a fundamental reorganization of air-travel service in this country, unprecedented since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.

The most recent impetus for the passengers’ rights law, now ensconced in the pending omnibus legislation to provide re-authorization for the F.A.A., was of course the disgraceful incident in which a planeload of passengers on a Continental flight operated by ExpressJet were stranded all night long on a cramped, packed regional jet parked 50 yards from an empty gate at the airport in Rochester, Minn.

The reason for this stranding, the latest among literally thousands since the current spate began in late 2006, was simple: In bad weather, the plane had been diverted from its scheduled destination, Minneapolis, to Rochester, 75 miles away.

Rather than discharging the passengers at midnight when they landed, airline dispatchers chose to keep the plane on the apron, in potential takeoff position, on the off-chance that the weather in Minneapolis would clear with enough of a window to get that airplane in.

The reason for this: Airline logistics and cost-cutting being what they are these days, it made economic sense to at least try to get that aircraft, one of those dreadfully cramped ERJ-145s, into place so it could be used for another flight in the morning. It was a matter of hoping to get equipment in the right place.

Defending itself, ExpressJet, a subcontractor for Continental, gave some amazing shuck-and-jive excuses for the incident — and these were readily bought by the credulous Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper, whose initial report was picked up by the AP and by online sources.

Among the laughable excuses conveyed by the newspaper (and those who depended on its half-baked reporting): At the Rochester airport, the TSA staff had gone home for the night, so passengers couldn’t be “re-screened” if the airline let them off the plane and into the terminal. And, the crew had “timed out,” so a new crew had to be found in the middle of the night.

Even worse, credulous news reports conveyed the pitiful ExpressJet excuse that the airport was “closed” for the night. The cordial airport manager, when I spoke to him a day later, was fuming. The airport is open 24/7 and was fully prepared to receive those passengers, if the airline had simply pulled up to the gate.

Airports, as I noted previously, are a little fed up at being blamed by airlines in these events.

All of the excuses put out by ExpressJet and bought by the media were pure baloney. As anyone who has ever flown knows, you don’t have to be re-screened by the TSA at an airport at which you have debarked — for example for a connection. All airport arrival and departure areas are within the secure zones.

And as anybody with even a simple understanding of crew scheduling (even on a regional airline) knows, a crew that “times out” on the tarmac is not legally in position to wait there for a takeoff nod. It is flagged, done, bereft of flying authority. The only option it has is to drive that plane to the gate.

In fact, the ExpressJet crew timed out around 6 a.m., when the plane did in fact dutifully trundle the 50 yards back to a gate that had in fact been open and available all night. A new crew was then sought, and the flight finally arrived at Minneapolis at 9:15 a.m.

I guess the point of all of this summing-up (my previous posts have presented the salient information) is that we need to be clear about the facts, now that the media ragtime-band-and-debating society is at full-blast in demanding the passage of a passengers’ rights law.

We can’t blame all airlines for this mess. But we can blame the airline-industry mouthpieces and various amen-choruses in the (gwaak) “blogosphere,” who have scoffed at and ridiculed the notion that if airlines can’t provide assurances of adequate health and safety measures to stranded passengers, the government damn might will.

You know what, the government damn-well might.

Which brings me to the Business Travel Coalition, a group that I have been long familiar with, which represents the interests of corporations that purchase business travel, a category of spending that weighs in at around $260 billion a year domestically.

I have always regarded this group’s chairman and chief bottle-washer, Kevin Mitchell, as a straight-shooter.

The group and the companies it represents around the world have always been loath to support any kind of government intervention into the operations of the airlines, which were almost completely deregulated in this country in 1978.

So it’s interesting to see their current position, printed in full below.

Essentially, they say, the airlines had better move fast to get a real, enforceable industry plan in place to deal with these atrocious strandings and the corresponding offenses against common regard for the health and well-being of passengers — or the government will.

And guess what, airline industry: Your very best customers, corporate travel buyers, will support that government intervention, if you keep shucking and jiving.

Here is the Business Travel Coalition’s current ultimatum to the airlines:



Since 1999, BTC has testified four times in Congress in opposition to passenger rights legislation. In lieu of Congressional intervention in the marketplace, anathema to businesses whose interests BTC represents, BTC called for the voluntary airline Customer Service Plans that went into effect in September 1999. In testimony in March of that year, however, as well as in all follow-on testimony through the years, BTC cautioned that if the airlines do not fix the service and extended ground delay problems, someone will eventually endeavor to do so for them.

From BTC’s 1999 testimony : “Like other industries that have faced the ominous threat of government intervention, airlines should view this legislation as a major warning and move decisively to address Congressional concerns. The industry needs to take immediate steps to head off this and further Congressional action, which will surely follow, if the industry’s problems are not corrected in the near term.”

Some low-cost and major network carriers have taken positive, but limited steps to address the extended ground delay problem. However, ten years later, airline passengers, consumer groups led by, travel industry professionals and the organizations that represent them such as the American Society of Travel Agents and the National Business Travel Association have said “game-over, lights-out;” it’s time for legislation and a single industry standard. So have many of our nation’s editorial pages such as The New York Times as well as an increasing number of Members of Congress. It is indeed sad commentary on airline industry leadership that the situation has had to come to this.

As part of its due diligence in determining a position on this controversial issue, BTC on July 26 initiated a survey of travel industry professionals, which is still ongoing . It is abundantly clear from preliminary results that airlines have run out of public-relations runway. Even their own employees, senior executives and former board members support passenger rights legislation, according to the survey and related interviews BTC has been conducting.

It seems that no matter where in the world passenger rights standards are proposed, airlines drag out the dire but fatigued “unintended consequences” warning. For example, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association last week told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I promise you that if a three-hour rule goes into effect, we’ll be having this conversation again and talking about the unintended consequences…” And in Europe, the International Air Transport Association and the European Low Fares Airline Association claimed that the now-implemented EU passenger rights regulations would limit consumer choice.

The sky, it turns out, did not fall in Europe. An EU-based travel management company CEO recently told BTC, “The EU regulations on flight cancellations and delays were expected to increase costs without much benefit to passengers. However, it seems not to have had that result. My experience is that vague reasons for cancellations have disappeared, and that the airlines will re-route and provide overnight accommodations when technical reasons prohibit them from flying. Compensation for cancellations is paid without argument.”

Airport Business Magazine Editorial Director John F. Infanger last week likely spoke for many in succinctly stating at the beginning of his blog-post titled The Airlines Talk of ‘Unintended Consequences,’ “… when it comes to the idea of mandating how long passengers can be made to suffer through ground delays at airports. The unintended consequence of them [airlines] continually turning a deaf ear to the issue is likely to be a new DOT reg or federal legislation telling them: Here it is; deal with it.” Infanger ends his post with, “If they want to minimize the unintended consequences, they ought to get in the discussion.”

From BTC’s vantage point, reasonable and experienced airline and travel industry executives have concluded that if airlines cannot solve these customer problems after ten years of Congressional pressure and unfavorable press coverage, then there must be a market failure. That extended ground delays are statistically insignificant is lost on the daughter who had a ninety year old father parked in a hot metal tube for five hours in August. This is first and foremost a health and safety issue. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars endeavoring to incrementally improve upon aircraft accident statistics. Why should passengers expect and accept less with respect to the nearly 500 incidents during the first six months of 2009 in which passengers spent greater than three hours on planes?

Unstoppable momentum is building for passenger rights legislation. Airlines’ loss of control of this debate is the first but perhaps not the last “unintended consequence” resulting from stonewalling for so long on this important consumer issue. They have a closing window-of-opportunity to humble themselves and constructively engage the proponents of passenger rights legislation. The Air Transport Association and its member airlines have been invited to participate in a September 22 Passenger Rights Stakeholder Hearing in Washington, DC ( ). Perhaps they will get the message this time and show up to find workable solutions for all stakeholders.”


1 comment:

paleolith said...

This is an excellent example of needing to level the playing field. Capitalism works best with careful regulation. In this case, if following voluntary guidelines costs an airline even 50 cents per booking, it loses customers in the intensely price-driven ticket market. Requiring these actions allows all airlines to accept them without losing market share.