When Kate served on the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Tarmac TaskForce in 2008, she was skeptical of the Airport Council International-North America (ACI-NA) position that no DOT rules were needed requiring airports to have tarmac delay contingency plans. ACI-NA assured the task force that airports already had such plans.
The many long tarmac delays caused by the weather disaster now known as "Snowtober," particularly at Connecticut's Bradley Field, were not entirely, or even primarily, the airlines' fault. Instead, the strandings illustrated the lack of preparedness of some of our nation's airports and widespread failures of communication, cooperation, and collaboration between the many agencies involved in our nation's complex air travel system.
To determine the validity of that observation, FlyersRights.org member Peter Green spearheaded a research project on tarmac delay contingency planning at the nation's hub airports. He sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to 65 large- and medium-hub airports and to over 100 small- and non-hub airports. We announced a December 30 release date.
Receipt of this data has been delayed by longer than expected response times from some airports, necessitating revision of the release date. We want to give the airports every opportunity to respond to our Freedom of Information requests, so we're expanding the window of opportunity. We are very grateful to those airports that have already provided information, and look forward to presenting an illuminating look at the state of our airports' tarmac delay contingency planning.
Our target release date is now January 16, 2012. Please make a tax-deductibledonation to the Flyers Rights Education Fund now, so that Kate can take the results of our airport survey to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood personally. Our limited resources make that trip otherwise impossible.
FlyersRights Voices Support for STRIP Act
Recent news stories, from this month's humiliation of Lenore Zimmerman at JFKto last week's TSA confiscation of a cupcake at Las Vegas' McCarran Airporthave caused many of our members to express concern about airport check-in procedures. These incidents demonstrate, in our view, failures of leadership, insufficient guidance, and inadequate training. Our members' attitude reflects the perception that virtually unlimited power is being granted to these agents who frequently have neither the skills nor the resources to exercise that power wisely.
The recent rash of publicized TSA excesses has caused Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn to say "Enough!" She has introduced H.R. 3608, the Stop TSA's Reach In Policy (STRIP) Act. The bill would prohibit any TSA employee not trained as a federal law enforcement officer or eligible for federal law enforcement benefits from wearing law enforcement uniforms or wearing a police-like metal badge.
"It is outrageous that in a post 9/11 world that the American people should have to live in fear of those whose job it is to keep us safe," Blackburn said. "Congress has sat idly by as the TSA strip searches 85 year old grandmothers in New York, pats down 3 year olds in Chattanooga, and checks colostomy bags for explosives in Orlando. Enough is enough! The least we can do is end this impersonation which is an insult to real cops."
Congresswoman Blackburn's office contacted Kate to ask for our support. FlyersRights strongly supports Congresswoman Blackburn's bill. While we understand that most TSA personnel diligently work at their tasks, we agree with Congresswoman Buchanan's assertion that "It is outrageous that in a post 9/11 world that the American people should have to live in fear of those whose job it is to keep us safe." Moreover, we agree that the uniforms and badges worn by TSA gate personnel imply a degree of training and expertise that is not supported by current TSA training.
FlyersRights.org believes that TSA personnel should not be called TSA Officers until they are thoroughly trained in law enforcement procedures and the appropriate exercise of law enforcement powers.
Make a Year-end Gift to Flyers Rights Education Fund
You still have a few more days to take advantage of the matching gift challenge from Board Member Paul Hudson and friends of Ralph Nader. The coalition Paul put together will match your donation to the Flyers Rights Education Fund, dollar for dollar, through the end of the year
If you've given recently, please accept our thanks. For those of you who haven't, perhaps you're looking for one more tax-deductible donation for 2011. Please consider our education and services arm, the Flyers Rights Education Fund, and help us carry our message forward.
Please donate now, and help Kate get to Washington to meet with Secretary LaHood.
FlyersRights member Scott Bechtel and his family planned a trip to Florida eightmonths in advance. Scott reserved four seats for his party as a pair of two-ticket records, which included his wife and parents, on Continental Airlines. He did everything right, and received confirmation for the two sets of tickets and for two pairs of seats across the aisle from each other.
Perfect. The flights were set, and the younger Bechtels would be across the aisle from Scott's elderly parents.
Then came United Airlines' takeover of Continental. A seasoned traveler, Scottknew that United might move his seats as they converted the Continental flights to their Economy Plus business model, and he doubted that United would inform him of the change before his family reached the check-in counter.
He was right. Checking his seat assignments once a month, he discovered that the seat assignments had changed-the family was scatter all over the aircraft, with no two seats together. Scott then noticed that United had voided both reservation records and created new records. Not only that, they refused to even allow Scott to view the record until he entered into a binding, non-refundable agreement to accept the new reservations.
Luckily, Scott caught the changes early, and was able to fix the seating arrangements-as he says, "for now." The lesson we should all learn here is that we all need to be our own advocates. Purchase far in advance of travel doesn't guarantee a problem-free trip, so it is important to check the trip's status often and take immediate action to deal with any problems that arise.
"This is a case of breach of contract," the complaint states. "Delta Air Lines has a contract with all its passengers to reimburse them up to $3,300 for expenses if their bags are delayed. Delta ignores the contract and often tells passengers they are only entitled to $25.00 to $50.00 in daily expenses. At no point does Delta tell passengers of their rights to up to $3,300.00 in reimbursement. Passengers are left in the dark when their bags are delayed. Passengers want Delta to abide by its contract."
Lead plaintiff Susan Miller says "Delta is contractually responsible for reimbursing consumers for any direct or consequential damages resulting from Delta's own misconduct," including the cost of medication, warm clothing or other essential items in the lost or delayed baggage. "Under the contract, if passengers need warm clothes or medications, etc., they are entitled to buy those and be reimbursed by Delta, not be told that there is a limit for expenses of $25.00 a day."
FlyersRights agrees. Contracts of carriage, though often presented in mouse-print and always packed with legal-ese, define the airlines' responsibility to us. They will never hesitate to quote their contract to avoid redressing wrongs to passengers, and we should never hesitate to quote those documents to demand that redress.
Flight Cancellations Decline
Despite the continuing predictions of pending doom from the airlines and a flawed Government Accountability Office study that claimed our Three-Hour Tarmac Rule was "probably" the cause of this year's higher cancellation rate in comparison with that of 2010, cheapflights.com reports that "FlightStats says North American cancellations were down measurably for the second straight month."
November's results continue a trend begun in October, when FlightStats reportsthat flight cancellations were down as compared to September.
FlyersRights applauds the airlines' recent performance numbers. Could it be that the Rule has caused the airlines to better manage their schedules?
Flyers Rights Education Fund
Board member Paul Hudson leads a coalition with Ralph Nader and some ofRalph's friends, matching, dollar for dollar, your contributions to the Flyers Rights Education Fund, our education and service arm. Your contributions are tax-deductible, and this is a great opportunity to really make your dollars count.
In the holiday spirit, please give what your can to Flyers Rights Education Fundand help us increase our airline passenger education and services effort for the coming year.
Want to be a FlyersRights Spokesperson?
Kate will be out of touch for a few days next week, so we need a stand-in. If you would be comfortable with a commitment that could mean only a moment's notice, and appear in our behalf, and you feel that you know a lot about our organization, please let Kate know, email@example.com.
Candidates should be well versed in FlyersRights.org positions and willing to follow our FlyersRights.org guidelines for media spokespeople which Kate will provide upon request.
In the wake of the Snowtober Stranding disaster, the Department of Transportation (DOT) saw, as we did, that the root cause of the many extended tarmac strandings was lack of preparedness and coordination among the many players in our complex air transport system. To address that issue, the DOT co-hosted a half-day forum with their Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), inviting members of the aviation community, including FlyersRights. The invitation describes the forum goal as "to identify a number of steps that the aviation community can take to improve coordination and decision making, and, ultimately, travel for consumers, during the winter season before us."
To underscore the importance of the forum, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and FAAAdministrator Randy Babbitt were keynote speakers for the event.
The forum gave us an opportunity to introduce FlyersRights member Peter Green's in-progress research project, discovering which of some 65 hub airports have tarmac delay contingency plans. Peter's approach is to simply ask the airports, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to provide their plans. He has received replies from about half the airports, and a trend has emerged.
To date, only about half of those responding have any sort of contingency plan, even stretching the definition to include any "Irregular Operations Plan." Of those, many appear to be of little value. For example, one airport's plan boils down to "Call the airport manager." We hope to have full results before the end of the year.
Armed with Peter's research data, FlyersRights member Lee Wallace attended the forum on our behalf. After the opening session, he attended the Airport Operations breakout session-other sessions addressed Airline Operations and Customer Experience.
The Airport Operations panel was chaired by Kate Lang, FAA Deputy Associate Administrator for Airports, who led a panel that included representatives of several airports, airline executives, the FAA, and TSA. Lee found the session very informative, with one exception. Here's Lee's account:
I stood up during the Q&A session and noted that FLYERSRIGHTS.org was currently undertaking a study on airport contingency planning and that our preliminary results indicated less than 50% of airports had such a plan in place. This seemed to surprise many of the panelists and started a lively discussion.
When the breakout sessions ended and the close-out discussion began, Transportation Secretary LaHood opened the floor for questions. I went to the microphone and again outlined the preliminary results of our study and asked how we could effectively manage the perception at some airports that contingency planning was the responsibility of the airlines and not the airports.
At that point, Deborah McElroy, the Executive Vice President of Policy and External Affairs for Airports Council International North America [ACI-NA], challenged the findings in our study. She insisted that their internal surveys indicated that 84% of all airports have contingency plans in place. I spoke with Ms. McElroy after the session and told her that FlyersRights would be happy to share our data gathering methods and results with her organization, but that we stood behind our findings and that the formal report would be published in December.
Airport Information Web Page-to facilitate information exchange between airport operations and the aviation community during severe weather conditions. Attendees generally agreed on the value of the idea, but cautioned that it is not a comprehensive solution. Thoughtful page development, rather than immediate page development, was cautioned.
Strategic Planning Teleconferences-increase situational awareness through FAA-sponsored conference calls, including smaller airports, to exchange information on diverting flights.
Identification of Diverting Flights-create special data tags for diverted flights on air traffic controller screens. Forum participants did not generally believe this would be useful to airlines, airports, or air traffic controllers.
Better coordination of FAA equipment outages.
Improving airport contingency plans. NOTE: DOT rules require airlines to have tarmac delay contingency plans, but do not require airport plans for the same contingency.
Airports avoided the tarmac delay contingency plan requirement during the DOT's 2008 Tarmac Task Force, of which Kate was a member, because ACI-NA representative Deborah McElroy-the same Ms. McElroy who challenged Lee--assured the task force that regulation was unnecessary because all airports had contingency plans. Peter Green's research project will determine the validity of that statement, and we will share the results with Secretary LaHood and FAA Administrator Babbitt. Remember, ACI-NA is a lobbying force for the airports, and so promotes their vested interest in escaping regulation.
What American Airlines' Bankruptcy Means to You
American Airlines' November 29th bankruptcy under Chapter 11 generated greatuncertainty in the flying public. American Airlines sent amessage to their AAdvantage Club members, assuring them that their accumulated miles were safe, saying "You will continue to earn miles through all our existing AAdvantage participating companies and you will be able to redeem those miles for the same great awards."
Company assurances notwithstanding, we sent out a press release, offering these observations:
There is risk that your ticket will not be honored by AA should their restructuring fail.
If you have frequent flyer miles, book your trip now, preferably on a code-share partner of AA that is not at risk of bankruptcy.
Ticket holders are unsecured creditors, last on the list of creditors, so if AA shuts their doors there will be little to NO relief for affected ticket holders.
Reciprocity rules, under which airlines were required to honor other airlines' tickets in cases such as this, expired in 2007. Ticket holders will be left holding the bag if AA does fall.
Some airlines may have insurance to guard against passenger loss in this situation, but we don't know if American Airlines has insurance that would cover the kind of volume that AA would have to cover if they fail entirely.
American Airlines' refusal to take bailouts was admirable. They wanted complete management control with no government intervention, but it appears that need for control was fatal.
It appears that they filed bankruptcy because of high labor costs and extremely large management bonuses. FlyersRights hopes that other air carriers will take note.
Media commentary on the action has been fairly low key. All point out that Chapter 11 is a vehicle that allows companies to restructure debt and renegotiate labor costs. Many noted that unprofitable route segments are likely casualties, and Fox News warned that "bankruptcy proceedings may bring some humbug behavior from AA's staff in what is already predicted to be a hectic holiday travel season."
Should you encounter problems with AA flights, call our Hotline at 877-359-6776. We're here to help.
House Wants TSA to Treat Troops Better
We're happy to report further chipping away at TSA's security procedures. TheHouse voted unanimously last week to allow military personnel on duty travel to receive special preference that would move them through the TSA checkpoint faster
. FlyersRights heartily endorses this measure, which acknowledges that troops we routinely thrust in harm's way in our defense are not security threats. As Kate told the Associated Press, our organization "strongly supports expedited screening for the military and that should be extended to all law enforcement, DOD folks with security clearance and other government officials with security clearance."
FlyersRights.org was inundated last week with calls and e-mail from passengersshocked to discover that Korean Air had cancelled their confirmed ticket from US departure points to the Pacific resort destination, Palau. The tickets, purchased by over 300 people during the first week in September, were confirmed for travel dates between November 30 and March, 2012. While the advertised rate was unusually low, travelers saw it as an introductory fare for a new route.
A month later, Korean Air notified the DOT that that the fare was advertised in error, asserting that it was a special fare intended to be available only to travel agents as a means of promoting the airline's inaugural service between North America and Palau but mistakenly made available to the public at large.
They claimed that the fare restriction was clearly identified. The identification was an obscure fare basis code only shown in the mouse print fare rules and restrictions. Expecting passengers to understand these codes is tantamount to publishing the rules in a foreign language, requiring passengers to use a translation dictionary.
Affected passengers were not notified until November 7th, fully two months after the erroneous bookings. The airline offered full ticket reimbursement, reimbursement for "travel-related" out of pocket expenses, a $200 voucher, and repurchase at the lowest fare available during the last year.
However, that fare is nearly 50% higher than the booked fare, and was a deal-breaker for many of the passengers. The meaning of "travel-related expenses" is not clear. Does it include booking hotels, tours, and non-refundable items that have been booked while counting on the trip?
Further, the 111 passengers in contact with FlyersRights have yet to receive a penny of reimbursement. Finally, the notification delay almost certainly moved the travelers into a much more expensive ticket price range, making the $200 voucher of questionable value, especially for booking on another airline.
The airline's error destroyed the dreams of many people. A blind PhD candidate in Texas who dreamed of swimming with dolphins, something she is prohibited from doing in the US, said, "Korean Air may have destroyed a life-long dream of this blind lady." Korean Air broke a deal. By charging their credit card, sending confirmations & waiting two months to notify their customers of their error, they broke the dreams of hundreds of passengers and effectively extorted them for more money to rebook.
Airline Fashion Police Confuse Passengers
A series of boarding denial incidents have raised the issue of consistent rules. Last week's Fox News interview with Kate covered a wide range of issues, but the part that was aired focused on what is and isn't proper attire for air travel. Noting that "appropriate attire" is simply a question of flight attendant opinion, Kate said that "People aren't mind readers. They don't know what that flight attendant's going to want to see when you get on a plane!"
Some viewers misconstrued Kate's comments as advocating for a sort of travel uniform, as some of the What Kate's Saying entries below will show. In fact, FlyersRights believes that anything legal on the street should be legal in an airliner. We simply want guidelines from the carriers regarding what constitutes unacceptable attire. As things stand now, pants worn too low are sometimes unacceptable, while the gentleman shown here was ushered to his seat on a US Airways flight.
Fees in the News
One airline found a new way to squeeze more money from their passengers last week, while a new United States Senate bill targeted an irritating but common fee.
A Comtel Air flight from India to Britain stopped in Vienna for fuel last week and the charter service asked its passengers to fork over $31,000 to continue the flight. Passengers reported being sent off the plane to use airport ATMs. The flight eventually reached its destination, packed with irate passengers. Major airline stockholder Bhupinder Kandra blamed travel agents, saying the agents had not turned fare money over to the airline before departure. "This is not my problem," he said. "The problem is with the agents." Welcome to air travel in the 21st Century.
As Kate said, "There's plenty of absurdity in airline land."
On the other hand, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) introduced a bill last week that she said would protect passengers from excessive baggage fees. Dubbed The Airline Passenger BASICS - or Basic Airline Standards to Improve Customer Satisfaction - Act , the bill, S. 1913, would require airlines to allow one checked bag, carry-on bag, and personal item without charge, excluding overweight bags, and mandates provision of a seat, potable water, and bathroom facilities without further charge.
FlyersRights supports the senator's effort. While it won't save air travelers any money, it will simplify fares. More than that, it will eliminate the incentive to pack one's worldly belongings into a carry-on. With fewer carry-on bags, TSA lines will speed up and we'll spend less time standing in the jet way while those ahead of us spend minutes jamming overstuffed luggage into the overhead bins.
Moreover, FlyersRights recognizes the need for infrastructure improvements, largely funded through the FAA 7.5% excise fee on ticket sales. Unbundled fees are not subject to that tax, causing decreased funding for the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. When the airlines again fold baggage charges into ticket prices, more funding will flow into airport improvements.
Matching Gift Pledge!
The Flyers Rights Education Fund is the education and service arm of our organization. Approved by the IRS in June, 2011, the Fund gives you a way tocontribute to our airline passenger rights efforts through a tax-deductible vehicle. We now support many of our efforts through The Fund:
Our free, 24/7 Hotline
Mass mailings unrelated to political action requests
Press releases related to educational efforts on behalf of airline passenger rights
Now we have an exciting new way for you to leverage your tax-deductiblecontributions to the Fund. Paul Hudson, a member of our Board of Directors andExecutive Director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project (ACAP), has pooled his personal resources with those of ACAP and friends of our longtime supporter, Ralph Nader, to pledge a matching-gift contribution of $15,000 to Flyers Rights Education Fund.
But you must act now! We must achieve this goal by the end of the year. Please go to the Flyers Rights Education Fund donation page now and give what you can. The coalition's generous offer expires at midnight, December 31, 2011. We must answer the coalition's challenge and meet their contribution goal by the end of the year.
Remember, each and every dollar you contribute during this short window will have a double impact on advancing the cause of airline passenger rights.
Help us stay in the fight! Kate's remarkable responses to Snowtober, in so many national forums, would not have been possible without your generous support. You know that her family can no longer subsidize the effort-without your help, the premier voice of airline passenger rights in America will be stilled.
We are commited to solutions for promoting airline passenger policies that forward first and foremost the safety of all passengers while not imposing unrealistic economic burdens that adversely affect airline profitability or create exhorbitant ticket price increases.
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.