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, 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.