Last week’s mother of all customer service meltdowns — the United Airlines flight 3411 fiasco — was decades in the making. It is a deeply rooted cultural problem that has greatly worsened in recent years, and one that the major U.S. network airlines neither can nor want to solve. Some of the world’s most customer-centric carriers include Azul, Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines. Those airlines’ cultures never in a zillion years would have allowed a guest to be dragged down the aisle like an animal — bleeding, with a broken nose, a concussion and knocked out teeth — as other horrified passengers watched.
Since the legacy U.S. airlines secured their antitrust immunities for their joint ventures and massively consolidated the industry, their obsessive public-policy focus has been to frustrate domestic and foreign competition. For example, they are purposefully underutilizing scarce takeoff and landing at slots Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and New York’s LaGuardia Airport to keep U.S. low-fare carriers out, while scorching the earth to block badly needed foreign carrier entry to U.S markets.
In addition, airlines have fought virtually every consumer protection proposal at the Department of Transportation, in federal court and in Congress. United Airlines alone in recent years spent $41 million in campaigns to undermine proposed consumer protections. In a consolidated industry, consumers need increased protection, as tacit coordination on strategy and policies among a small group of competitors can make anti-competitive and anti-consumer behaviors easier to conduct. To reverse the decline in respect for airline customers it will take a combination of (1) stronger consumer protections, (2) the restoration of the right of consumers and state attorneys general to sue airlines and (3) increased domestic and foreign airline new entry.
In lieu of everything I have outlined above, the Business Travel Coalition strongly supports the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The bill, detailed at a press conference the senator held in Hartford, Conn., yesterday [April 17], strikes an appropriate balance of new consumer protections and structural reform. It addresses prioritization and compensation for involuntary bumping, the role of police in removing passengers, unreasonable delays, excessive fees and unfair consumer practices.
To his great credit, Sen. Blumenthal’s bill would restore airline passengers’ right to sue airlines for unfair or deceptive practices or unfair methods of competition. Such practices can include withholding ancillary fee information from travel agents, refusing to provide complete fare and schedule information to online meta-search sites upon which consumers depend for comparison shopping, undisclosed fees, price gouging, chronically late flights, and health and safety risks (see more examples of unfair or deceptive practices here).
The fundamental right to sue when financially harmed is one that the U.S. Congress never intended to have stripped from consumers when it deregulated the airline industry in 1978. Moreover, it is a right that consumers exercise in every other consumer-facing industry to discourage market participants from trampling upon their interests and rights. The right to sue would put desperately needed discipline into the U.S. commercial aviation system.
Kevin Mitchell is founder of the Business Travel Coalition (610-999-9247;
Mitchell@BusinessTravelCoalition.com), established in 1994 to interpret industry and government policies and practices and provide a platform so that the managed travel community can influence issues of strategic importance to their organizations.