Do passengers really want on-time filghts or flight availability?

Airlines are cutting flight availability dramatically and unexpectedly. Fewer on-time flights do not bode well for holiday travel bookings.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently announced that they are now recording the most fliers at US airports. That means that even after the pandemic, more Americans are flying than ever. The surge in vacation travelers means more cancellations and fewer on-time flights as more passengers want to travel by air. What do fliers want — on-time flights or cancellations?

Airlines are predicting demand will fall off as we head into the fourth quarter. That means they are planning less flight availability for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays. That doesn’t necessarily mean fewer people will be traveling during the holidays, only that there will be fewer available seats. That could translate into higher fares, more on-time flights, and packed planes.

That is the evident planning of the major airlines. The passenger aviation industry sees fewer travelers in the air. Now, the question is whether or not that is bad or an improvement over this past summer’s airport and airline scrum.

We need an airline system where passengers can expect on-time flights, not one that promises more than it can deliver.

You are being secretly taxed at airportsIf I had a choice, I would rather have flights that left and arrived at the destinations I chose when booking. When schedules are maintained, passengers are in control and airlines are in power as well. Passengers get to the cities they chose, more or less on time. And airlines have enough planes at the correct airports to carry the passengers to their promised destinations. Plus, every airline executive I know thinks that having workable schedules keeps flight crews in the right place at the right time. Both travelers and airlines are far happier with flight plans free from delays and cancellations.

Flights are delayed and canceled, creating chaos for airport personnel, airline flight crews, and passengers. Everyone is unhappy. Pilots and flight attendants find that they are now positioned in strange airports, and work hours are changed. Airport workers who work under aircraft wings, like refueling specialists, airplane lav cleaners, and baggage handlers, are pushed to get their jobs done more quickly. And passengers scramble to find out what they can expect from airlines. Do they get meal vouchers? How much are meal vouchers worth? What nearby hotels have rooms, and if they have no rooms, a $100 bit of airline scrip makes a poor overnight accommodation.

This summer’s spate of airline cancellations and delays led to DOT’s dashboard, which presents in a very simplified way what airlines say they will do for distressed passengers.

cancellationsSo far, newspapers, websites, and TV stations have regularly misinformed the public about the airlines’ response to this summer of discontent. The action by DOT has been presented as holding the aviation industry’s feet to its regulatory fire. However, the battles about what makes its way into the contracts of carriage and the now famous customer service plans were fought years ago. Passengers lost.

The media has assumed that what airlines say they will do in their customer service plans will happen. Unfortunately, that is not the case. DOT has required Customer Service Plans for almost a decade. Back in the early 2010s, when the fight over whether or not to make the customer service plan declarations a part of the contract of carriage, airlines won. Travelers United worked to make these consumer protections part of the legal contract between airlines and passengers. But, DOT decided that it would place too much responsibility on airlines.

Back in 2012 was the time when customer service plans were written and inserted into airline websites. They are a list of best-efforts actions that airlines pinky promised their passengers. The only difference between the plans from before the DOT dashboard and those after its publication are minor dining and accommodation benefits changes. Admittedly, these are needed changes. However, they only apply to cancellations and delays caused by the airlines. They don’t specify amounts of money for food. Plus, there is no promise of accommodation. If there are no available hotel rooms, most airlines provide scrip instead.

Here is DOT’s well-publicized dashboard

The Department of Transportation’s <a href="">online dashboard</a> outlines what different airlines offer when flights are canceled or delayed.
Credit: US Department of Transportation. This chart was published by the New York Times on September 2, 2022.)
Travelers see a well-played hand of public relations by DOT and the airlines. DOT publicized the promises made in customer service plans on the “dashboard.” And the airlines made minor changes to eliminate as many Xs and replace them with checkmarks. These customer service plans have been part of airline websites for almost a decade.

The DOT Dashboard demonstrated the department’s unused power. 

That magic DOT power is the power to say that DOT is responsible for passengers and the airlines. This dashboard will not be plastered across airports in public service advertisements and on airport-controlled video systems. Like the other consumer protections, it will be tucked away on DOT’s and the airline’s website. Passenger protections for denied boarding and lost/damaged/delayed baggage are hidden. They are only available to passengers who know them or are willing to go online and search airline websites for particulars.

Travelers United has campaigned for posters and videos created to highlight these few consumer protections. Like in the European Union, they should be posted at airports voluntarily. Knowing the rules makes it much easier for passengers to receive just compensation. Seeing the power of DOT’s dashboard may enlighten Congress, the DOT, and the FAA about the power of letting passengers know their rights. It is about time.

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