How to Make Airline Tickets Less … Awful

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A consumer group is calling for more reasonable airline ticket policies, including eliminating standby fees and allowing passengers to transfer unused tickets to other travelers — neither of which would cost airlines a dime. But don’t hold your breath waiting for airlines to suddenly start caring about being fair and reasonable.

Last week, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary — who is known for calling customers “idiots”, proposing standing-room-only tickets on planes, and otherwise being outrageous in a way that makes travelers assume flying will just keep getting worse — said something that was particularly surprising.

“We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off,” O’Leary said at the company’s annual meeting, according to the Irish Times and other outlets.

His comments, along with a new commitment to better customer service (so long as changes in policy “don’t cost a lot of money”), came soon after Ryanair, which is based in Ireland and is the largest low-fare airline in Europe, was named the worst overall brand for customer service. Not just in terms of airlines, but for the 100 biggest company brands serving the UK.

The report, from Which? magazine, relied on the input of travelers who described Ryanair’s service as “aggressive and hostile towards customers.”

(MORE: How the Airlines Put the Squeeze on Passengers)

While Ryanair (and its CEO) may represent the industry’s extreme, airline practices that have become standard, including the overall “no-frills, cattle-herding, fee-crazy” business model, as author Mark Gerchick put it, are often perceived of as aggressive and hostile. And yes, they often piss off the very customers who keep airlines in business, seemingly without necessity or reason.

Piling on fees for everything from bottled water to printing out boarding passes has helped make Ryanair and its followers, including Spirit Air in the U.S., among the industry’s most profitable players. Over the years, the so-called legacy carriers like Delta and United have embraced other strategies that peeve customers — eliminating unprofitable routes, jacking up of change fees to $200 or more — and yet which also, as TIME’s Bill Saporito recently reported, have made the airlines consistently profitable in recent years. Travelers probably shouldn’t expect much to change in the near future, as Saporito summed up:

“Life in the skies will not be improving anytime soon: no empty seats, no room overhead, and stressed-out staff. And as there is little or no capacity growth in the forecast, the future of flying promises more cramp for more cash.”

(MORE: Attention Virgin America Passengers, That Creepy Guy in Seat 23A Would Like to Buy You a Drink)

Sally Greenberg, executive director of National Consumers League, an advocate for American consumers and workers, believes that there will be a breaking point, when airlines will realize that aggravating customers with unreasonable fees and policies is bad for business. “It’s never a good idea for any industry to make the customer base angry year in, year out,” she said. “Though it appears airlines couldn’t care less, no industry will survive if it continues to poke its customers in the eye.”

But because it is unlikely that airlines will voluntarily change their ways anytime soon, a new National Consumers League report is calling for Congressional hearings and reforms “to rein in an industry reliant on high prices, punitive fees and penalties.” Among the report’s recommendations are the elimination of change fees for itinerary changes or cancellations made 10 or so days before departure; allowing consumers to transfer tickets to another traveler without penalty; and getting rid of standby fees “because there is virtually no cost to the airline to fill an empty seat.”

The NCL also targets the costly, misleading, and often useless insurance plans that are pushed by the airlines as a means for passengers to avoid the expensive change fees, which are of course also instituted by the airlines.

Of course, there are those who say that such fees are now a core part of the airline business model, and that their elimination would lead to a decrease in much-needed revenues. “If they [the airlines] had free change fees … people would book speculative flights to lock in lower fares,” Brian Kelly, of ThePointsGuy.com, told the Los Angeles Times. “Airlines would lose money.”

Well, they would in some ways. Yet Southwest Airlines has managed to do pretty well without resorting to ticket change fees, or checked baggage fees, for that matter.

If regulators mandated some of the changes suggested by the NCL, airlines would certainly have to alter their business models, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean they’d lose money hand over fist. “It’s a classic business ploy to yell and scream and say new regulations will put us out of business,” said Greenberg. “And then they adapt.”

(MORE: The One Airline That Stubbornly Refuses to Pile on the Fees — For Now)

We have a recent example of just this happening via the federal regulation instituted in 2010 calling for large fines to be assessed upon airlines that kept passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than three hours. Airline executives whined that the rules would create chaos, and described the regulations as “stupid,” unreasonable, and costly. Yet carriers quickly figured out how to cope. “The department’s rules on tarmac delays have virtually eliminated the long waits aboard aircraft that passengers used to experience too frequently,” Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley wrote in an e-mail to Businessweek.

In other words, the tarmac regulations, which airlines never would have agreed to if the feds hadn’t threatened them with big fines, worked. That’s one potentially miserable aspect of flying that travelers no longer have to worry about. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of rip-offs, annoyances, and unreasonable policies still on the table.

14 comments
cheapairlines
cheapairlines

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MCecil
MCecil

With all due respect, Mr. Tuttle, I believe that this is a horribly misinformed and myopic article.

Standby fees don't exist for most airlines, at least in the form the article insinuates. The "Fly Now" options offered by most US legacy carriers (yes, for a fee) offers a flight change with a guaranteed seat. That is in stark difference to standby, which offers no guarantees, and which most airlines restrict only to their frequent flyers to avoid mass chaos at the gate area. There is copious data available regarding standby passengers leading to flight delays.  Additionally, post 9/11 baggage rules restrict who is eligible to fly standby once bags are checked, so the entire issue is far more nebulous than offered in the article.

Southwest has the same price discrimination that legacy carriers have based on advanced purchase, and while they do not charge change penalties, they do charge for the fare difference which is most often far greater than the standard $200 fee.

The idea that airlines should continue flying unprofitable routes because it "peeves" the customer is absurd, and has no place in the business section of a news magazine. The claim that the industry is "reliant on high prices" is equally absurd; the cost in real dollars for an airline ticket is 50% lower now than it was in 1979. 

The tarmac delay plan put forth by the FAA has certainly eliminated the horror stories, to be sure. It has also been the cause of untold flight cancellations for the fear of the penalties. Some may say that worked, but it has come at a cost that the article doesn't bother mentioning. I'm not taking sides, on which approach is correct, but the bias is regrettable.

Flippantly offering that airlines profits have been in the black for "the past few years" ignores the long term capital costs they bear, the uncontrollable and unpredictable price of oil, and perhaps most importantly, the billions in losses the industry absorbed in the past 12 years. 

But hey, what do I know? I'm just a troll on the internet. 


GT470
GT470

"...eliminating standby fees and allowing passengers to transfer unused tickets to other travelers — neither of which would cost airlines a dime."

This would cost the airlines a dollar amount equivalent to the standby fees they're currently collecting as well as the dollar amount being collected from passengers who are buying new tickets instead of using "unused" ones. How do you figure this change comes with a cost less than $0.10 to the airlines?

HachiKo
HachiKo

I do not like Spirit and do not fly them.  But I do applaud them for being honest and open about their fees.  Hell, they are proud of their a la carte service.  I know a few fellow travelers who play the spirit game well.  It may be fourth class travel, but it is cheap fourth class travel when done right.

PacificSage
PacificSage

PEOPLE! Please, please support high speed rain between all major American cities.

I'd love to 'fly' between the cities in no time. Embark from Los Angeles. Maybe have a cup of coffee in St. Louis on my way to New York. You could actually see the country.....and not be stuck in some tube next to a flatulent passenger and a screaming baby with NOWHERE to go.


stevets
stevets

From a speculative point of view, what would be interesting is a system where an airline allows passengers to resell their tickets for a portion of the market rate and the airline makes a percentage or trade commission every time the ticket is purchases or sold. Under this stock market style system, someone could actually make money by cancelling a flight. While unlikely, the airline could theoretically make a profit on a flight without having to transport any passenger.

akazazian@comcast.net
akazazian@comcast.net

I get annoyed having to print my boarding pass.  It's full of advertisements.  Now i have to subsidize the advertising for the airlines industry?  and use my ink and paper?  The airlines have outsourced most duties to the customers...think about it!  We are asked to clean the plane before we get off!  We are baggage handlers.  We are our own ticket agents!  use the kiosk!  Use the kiosk!    HOSTILE to customers is right!!


craiglanders
craiglanders

What charging for the overhead bins and making checked bag free?  It would make getting on and off the plane much smoother and still generate revenue. 

Hotpuppy
Hotpuppy

Let them charge.... and in the meanwhile let us quit subsidizing them with special tax brakes and other nonsense.  Expand the Federal excise tax to include all revenue related to a flight including airport lounge fees, change fees, early boarding fees, baggage fees, pass fees, etc.... The airlines are avoiding tax by moving revenue out of the "ticket" and into the "accessories."

PoppaCharlie
PoppaCharlie

“We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off,” O’Leary said

Just stick with the things that necessarily piss them off, boyo?  It would take several large men to drag me into a Ryanair econobox anyway, and they'd have to pretty much sit on me to keep me there. 



karibu
karibu

I think airline fees are here to stay for a simple reason:  there is often no viable alternative to flying to your destination.  Traveling between continents?  What are you going to do, take a boat?  Traveling across country in the US?  What, take the train?  

Since the airlines are the only game in town, if they all have the fees, they have no incentive to remove them.  We will be paying these fees for many years to come.

stevets
stevets

@HachiKo I'm not sure I agree with them being honest about fees. When the law was changed to require them to advertise the full price of the ticket in advance, they were at the forefront of the challenge. They are always pushing so called "free fares" which are not really free but cover only the base fare. This is analogous to a vendor that sells a product for something low like a penny and then makes up for it with an outrageous shipping cost. They get away with all of this because they know most customers are too lazy or uninformed to know or care. Every airline experiences operational costs and the fact that spirit discloses some of them does not amount to honesty. If you can provide examples where they take accountability for their mistakes with passengers, that might be a different story.

Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

@karibu   Forever, at least.  But do I really have to be sneered at by an airline agent when the airline has canceled my flight at the last minute?