Passengers want better air travel. Airlines want $50 billion
Lobbyists and industry stakeholders are racing around DC asking Congress for virus pandemic funding. Meanwhile, consumer advocates may be the only organizations not begging for money these days in Washington. They are asking for solutions for consumers and ways that will use taxpayer dollars intelligently.
What consumer groups want is improved customer service from airlines. We want this crisis to change the lack of planning ahead and having insurance for major problems that have resulted in the virus pandemic funding issues.
Immediate funding is needed to save jobs. Long-term funding is an opportunity to reset the aviation industry
While most funding bills take months to develop, this virus pandemic funding has taken on a life of its own. True, Congress needs to fund an immediate response to deal with the pandemic. However, Congress has time to consider “Phase Two” of funding for the longer-term survival of the airline industry and better air travel.
Before the better air travel phase of loans is sent to airlines, taxpayers (airline passengers) should be able to get several changes to the current airline/customer relationship. Changes like the following are suggested. After all, according to the airlines, passengers are the lifeblood of their industry. (Today they are also the insurance providers).
- No stock buybacks until the loans are paid in full.
- No aviation executive bonuses (or increased salaries) until loans are paid in full.
- An agreement that passenger safety and health will be prioritized over airline profits.
- During the time of the national emergency, passengers should be able to change flights without fees. Rebooking should be done for no extra charges. Call centers should be staffed to handle the increased call volume.
After this pandemic crisis, reset the airline/passenger relationship
During the second phase loans, airlines should agree to common sense customer service rules that should be included in both airline and ticket agent contracts of carriage.
- Restore the use of state and local courts for customer service disputes.
- Stop further constraints on passenger seating dimensions.
- Allow families to sit together for no extra charges.
- Change airline rules that force sick passengers to fly or face exorbitant costs.
- Ensure access to all airfare and ancillary fees so that passengers can comparison shop.
- Standardize customer service rules across airlines and ticket agents.
None of these are new ideas. They have been debated for decades. However, airline passengers and their representatives in Congress will never again have the financial power to demand that airlines treat passengers humanely. This is the time for a reset to the balance between the aviation industry and its passengers.
It is about time that airlines begin treating passengers like human beings rather than self-loading cargo. This is not too much to ask for $50 billion.
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Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.