Friday, February 16, 2007

The Cranky Flier Blog: Why I'm Against a Passenger Bill of Rights

Like I said, I'll post opposing views as well. All's fair...

The Cranky Flier: Why I'm Against a Passenger Bill of Rights

Why I'm Against a Passenger Bill of Rights

That title is likely to make me pretty unpopular with a lot of people, but it's my stance. I've mentioned it before, when the people stuck on that American flight in Austin formed the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, and I still feel the same way. So why am I bringing it up again?


Oh, right.

If you're breathing, you've heard about the JetBlue customers who were stuck on a JFK taxiway for up to 11 hours Wednesday. And it wasn't just JetBlue. There were reports of some problems at other airlines at other airports as well. Why did it happen?

Well, the weather was horrendous. Sure snow can slow things down, but when you get ice and freezing rain like they did the other day, it's going to cause serious havoc. Airplanes cannot depart with ice on their wings for safety reasons and taxiing in ice isn't exactly easy, so this causes massive delays and cancellations. JetBlue, as they usually do, tried to operate as many flights as possible instead of pre-canceling as some airlines do. The series of events that followed meant that people were stuck on planes for up to 11 hours without actually going anywhere.

Without question, this is a very painful thing to deal with as a customer. Nobody wants to be stuck on a plane for any longer than necessary, and 11 hours is a nightmare. JetBlue apparently agrees, because they issued an apology, gave full refunds, and handed out free roundtrip vouchers for a future flight. No, those people won't get their 11 hours back, but they did get what I consider to be pretty fair compensation.

Yet despite that compensation, JetBlue is still getting roasted in the media. Unfortunately, this is also helping fuel the fire for a legally binding Passenger Bill of Rights. This is not a good idea.

I think my perspective is different than many in the general public, because I come from an airline background. Now let's think about this. Do you think there's anyone at any airline that would see an airplane sitting on the taxiway for hours and actually want those people to be there? Not even Alitalia would do that on purpose . . . I think.

The reality is that in horrible weather as we saw on Wednesday, things are bound to break down and it's not just the airline's fault. The airport needs to take some blame as well. In some cases where airlines share terminals, it can even be an entirely different airline's fault.

In these situations, airlines have two options. They could effectively shut down and pre-cancel their flights or they could try their best to operate in the weather and get as many people out as they can. Keep in mind that if people didn't really need to travel, they didn't have to. Every airline waived change fees for people traveling during the storm, so anyone could have easily just gone home and sat by the fire while the weather rolled in.

Instead, the people who went to the airport were those who really wanted to get to their destination. They knew there would be delays, and they must have prepared themselves mentally. That being said, nothing would prepare someone to sit on a taxiway for 11 hours, so media headlines were born.

What exactly would a Passenger Bill of Rights do? Well there are different versions floating around, but most of them involve hefty compensation for long delays. Of course, airlines today don't compensate you for weather delays by rule. For massive delays, enlightened airlines like JetBlue understand the value of handing out vouchers, and they do it on their own.

But what if government-mandated rules were put into place requiring cash compensation? What if people by law couldn't be held on an aircraft over a certain amount of time? Well, airlines would just pre-cancel a lot more flights. And with flights as full as they are, it's going to be impossible to reaccommodate those people quickly once the weather has passed. That means all those people who really need to travel would be out of luck for several days.

One thing to remember here is that not everyone was stuck on the taxiway for 11 hours. JetBlue still managed to operate about half their flights systemwide, and that's no small feat when most of your network involves hard-hit Boston, New York, and Washington. With a Passenger Bill of Rights, JetBlue probably would have pre-canceled a lot of those flights to avoid having a couple of flights get stuck on the taxiway. That would have angered a lot more people than it would have helped.

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