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The idea of punishing airlines for major delays makes sense to anyone who has endured the frustrations of Thanksgiving travel. But the first airline to be slapped with a heavy fine for long tarmac delays may not in fact be a win for travelers. Some observers say the threat of fines may actually cause more delays. We’ll explore “passenger rights” regulations, and what you can expect traveling this holiday season.
- Charles Leocha director, Consumer Travel Alliance
- Brett Snyder Author, The Cranky Flier blog; President and Chief of Cranky Concierge air travel assistance. Contributing writer, CNN and Conde Nast Traveler.
- Andrea Sachs Staff Writer, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's easy to bash the airlines, especially these days you find yourself bumped from overbooked flights. More and more unexplained delays and cancellations, new fees every time you turn around for everything from your checked bag to headphones you need to watch a movie.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEver since an epic tarmac delay a few years ago, passengers have demanded rights, forming advocacy groups and pushing for new regulations and the result has been a slew of new rules, including a limit to how long a plane can sit on the tarmac without letting passengers return to the gate. Several other rules took effect this year and more will go into effect in January, but some say be careful what you wish for because some of those rules may end up causing more headaches for you, the traveler.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe'll find out what's new and what you can expect on your next flight. Joining us in studio is Andrea Sachs, travel writer with The Washington Post, Andrea good to see you again.
MS. ANDREA SACHSHi, nice to be back.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, which is a non-profit advocacy group for travel consumers. Charlie Leocha, thank you for joining us.
MR. CHARLES LEOCHAGlad to be here.
NNAMDIJoining us by telephone from Long Beach, Calif. is Brett Snyder, he is the author of the blog, The Cranky Flier and president and chief of Cranky Concierge air travel assistance. He's also a contributing writer with CNN and Conde Nast Traveler. Brett Snyder, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRETT SNYDERThanks for having me back on.
NNAMDIAnd of course, we'll take your calls at 800-433-8850. What would you like to see the airlines do differently? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Send us a tweet at kojoshow or email us at email@example.com. Charlie, the Department of Transportation just issued the largest penalty ever for an airline against American Airlines for a tarmac delay, tell us about that.
LEOCHAWell, basically, the tarmac rules say that you -- that airlines can't be out for more than three hours after they push back from the gate. And in this case, American Airlines managed to get all of its mainline carriers back, but their regional carrier or American Eagle didn't get all the people back. And so it was a number of flights that were involved and there were something like 600, different -- I might be wrong on that number, but a large number of passengers who were involved. And for the first time, the Department of Transportation actually fined an airline for a tarmac delay.
LEOCHASo it's kind of a watershed moment. It's the first time the -- even though we knew there were hefty teeth in this new rule, this is the first time that the Department of Transportation has actually used...
NNAMDIA fine of almost a million dollars, right?
LEOCHAYou got it.
NNAMDI$900,000. Brett, passenger rights advocates see it as a victory. What say you?
SNYDEROh I see it as not a good thing, which -- you know, if you look at it, yes, there were people that were held on the tarmac for three hours. That's not a good thing without question. The airlines don't want to do that, but what this means for the airlines is they were already operating under this sort of fear that there were going to be fines. They didn't know how bad they would be, but they knew that there would be fines.
SNYDERNow, this is the first example of a fine actually being handed down. It's a pretty heavy fine and so it requires that the airlines continue to be very conservative in their scheduling practices and that's means we're likely to see more cancellations as airlines just act conservatively. Flights that might have been able to depart won't even be operated now, just out of fear.
NNAMDIWhich inconveniences you more? You can call 800-433-8850, a long delay on the tarmac or your flight being cancelled? 800-433-8850. Andrea, the most recent tarmac incident was last month in Hartford, Conn. Can you remind us about what happened there?
SACHSCertainly, that's when I fly home, which I'm doing tomorrow night, that's where I go, little Hartford. You made the news. Congrats to you. They just were not -- they're not accustomed to that kind of situation where there's a snowstorm and there were a lot of flights that had to get re-routed and they just didn't know how to handle it. They had international passengers and it was just a -- like traffic jam that we've seen on I-66, but instead it was at Hartford. So there were long delays at a small airport.
NNAMDIBrett, just to help people understand, in general, can you explain why planes just don't go back to the gate if they know that the delay is likely to be hours long?
SNYDERAbsolutely. So do you want specifically in the Hartford situation or in general?
NNAMDIIn general, in general.
SNYDERIn general. So usually when this is a problem, it's when there's a severe weather event so it could be summer thunderstorms or it could be, you know, some massive snowstorm in the winter.
NNAMDIIt was the freak fall snowstorm we had.
SNYDERYeah in the fall, right, an October snowstorm. So you know what happens, the airlines -- nobody can predict the weather perfectly, but they do the best that they can with the information they have and so things ended up getting backed up. In the case of Hartford, a lot of aircraft diverted there that were originally supposed to go to Boston, but there were some issues in Boston.
SNYDERThey didn't think the aircraft were going to have to divert in the first place because the instrument landing system ended up failing for a short period of time because of the snowfall at JFK and Newark. So you sort of had all of these issues coming together to create this perfect storm, for lack of a better word, that you know made it difficult to do.
SNYDERBut you see it primarily at congested airports. Hartford was a different story just because of all these things coming together. But at some airports, you know there are a lot of gates, but there are more flights when things go wrong. And a lot of airplanes may not be able to get out on time, but airplanes may be able to keep landing. It's sort of a delicate balance.
NNAMDIHere is Chris in Boonsboro, Md. who would like to comment on this. Chris, you're on the air go ahead please.
CHRISThank you for taking my call. I'm a flight attendant with a major carrier. I won't say who and Chris isn't my real name, but you may be aware and your commentator may be aware that once the captain releases the brake and backs away from the gate, his time clock starts and so does that of the flight attendants. So all the crew start getting paid what we call flight time. If we're sitting at the gate, we get paid very minimally, such as like a dollar and half an hour. So if we're trapped on the plane -- and that's how it feels to flight attendants, too. We feel trapped, especially when the passengers are rightfully crabby, we're getting paid much less when we're sitting at the gate and passengers have access to coming on and off the airplane.
CHRISIf we back away from the gate and go out and get into our lineup, we're getting paid flight time. And as you probably know, you want to be -- the captain doesn't want to lose his place in the lineup, which is pertinent.
NNAMDIIt makes it very complicated, doesn't it, Andrea? On the one hand, the passengers would like to have access to the airport terminal. On the other hand, the flight -- the captain doesn't want to lose his place in line and on the third hand, if you will, the flight attendants and everybody gets paid more if they stay on the tarmac than if they pull up to the gate.
SACHSYeah, it's a (word?) problem. I don't know which hand is the best, as I guess it's such a gamble. Obviously, you have to go, hopefully with the pilot and the company which has the best intentions in mind. How to get the passengers to their destination without any danger, but also keeping the crew and the pilot safe and within their hours of employment. But honestly, if I had to sit on for seven hours, I would go crazy.
SACHSAnd I'd just want to be let off and I would rather re-arrange and stay in a hotel. And that's just my personal opinion, but some people just want to stay and stick it out.
NNAMDII think most of us would, but Brett it's my understanding -- of course, not just my understanding, but the reality is that that is more the exception than the rule. We know long tarmac delays sparked the passenger rights movement that has led to new regulations, but as I said, those delays are pretty rare. Would you say there are other issues facing passengers that we should be focusing on, Brett?
SNYDERWell, I mean, there's no question that the tarmac delays rule, while being sort of the most visible piece right now, it is a relatively small issue. It's not a small issue if you're stuck on an airplane for seven hours, but in the scheme of things, there are very few flights that ever run into that problem. But, you know, there are a lot of other things that are out there, in terms of -- everything from, you know, refunds to bag fees to everything else.
SNYDERYou know, people are always trying to figure out what's the -- what's the most important issue that we need to focus on for air travel and how are we going to make that...
NNAMDIWell, I've got to tell you, bag fee complaints to me are much more pervasive than complaints about delays on the tarmac. So yes, we'll move on to some other issues, but feel free to call us and discuss whatever issue you feel is of primary concern to you when you are flying. 800-433-8850. Are you traveling this holiday season or do you avoid flying during the holidays? 800-433-8850. We're talking with Brett Snyder, he's the author of the blog, "The Cranky Flier." Charlie Leocha is the director of the Consumer Travel Alliance and Andrea Sachs is a travel writer for The Washington Post.
NNAMDICharlie, but maybe the push for passenger rights of the past few years has done some good. New rules went into effect this year. Others will take effect in January. The three-hour tarmac rule is one. What else has changed?
LEOCHAWell, I think that there's a focus on the consumer right now and on the passenger. For years, the airlines used to compete with each other based on passenger service and now it seems that they compete with each other just simply on price. And even though the airlines like to say, oh, we have a unique product, there's not a big, big difference between sitting your butt down on a Delta flight or on a Continental flight or on a United flight.
LEOCHABasically, they're flying you from point A to point B and you get about exactly the same service, unless you're one of their mega-super elite fliers and then, of course, they give you a bed and a personal flight attendant to fan you while you're on the plane.
NNAMDIHow about if my flight tends to be overcrowded and I get bumped, what am I due?
LEOCHAWell that's one of the areas that the Department of Transportation has focused on recently. And if you're bumped and you agree to be bumped, then you get whatever you can negotiate with the airlines and that might be a free ticket. It might be a $150. It might be $200 in airline script. However, if you really want to go on the flight and you can't get out on board that flight then we have some minimums that come in and that's where the Department of Transportation has basically said, I believe it's something like, I think $750 or $600 for...
LEOCHA...up to $650 up to a two-hour delay and more than that, then it can go up to $1300. And you are eligible to get that in hard, green cash. Now, the airlines in the past haven't been very upfront about saying, we can give you hard, green cash. They want to give you airline script or free tickets.
LEOCHABut now you can get away from vouchers and actually get something that you might be able to use if you don't want to get on that flight.
NNAMDIDo you also think there needs to be more transparency, including the kind of notices in airports like you see if you're traveling in Europe?
LEOCHAOh yeah. Well, that's one of my new endeavors here in Washington. We're looking at trying to get posters put up in airports across the country that actually let people know what their rights are, like if your flight is delayed or if your luggage is lost. What are your rights? What is the email address that you can correspond with to complain? And what's the telephone number you can call? And I don't know when that's going to happen, but we're beginning that and hopefully by the end of next year.
NNAMDIWell, airport authorities can do that. Who is against the airport authorities doing it?
LEOCHAWell, I'm not sure. We're just beginning to look at this problem. And what happens is the airlines rent the gates from the airports and so we haven't heard yet from the airlines, but it would seem that they might not be too interested in us having posters up in the gates that they're renting. So we may have to put the posters into non-revenue producing sectors of the airport.
NNAMDIAndrea, there's not a hotline that one group of passenger advocates maintains for stranded passengers. Some passenger rights advocates even advise video-taping everything when stuck or recording, I should say, everything when stuck on -- when -- on your mobile device or anything else. Is that a good way to make your case or does it just simply just simply get the crew really irritated?
SACHSI think it is. I have been on flights and people have been -- they put -- I've been stuck on a plane -- I think it retuned three times before they could get it right. And everyone on my plane were -- they were Facebooking and Tweeting it and they got such a reaction. And I feel that, from what I've read, the carriers are really into social networking and they were reading what's out there. And they were very sensitive because it's bad advertising and they look really bad.
NNAMDIOh, so it's a good idea?
SACHSI think it is, from a consumer standpoint. And as a consumer, then I'd say yes.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Brett?
SNYDERWell, I think social media is fantastic. The airlines have -- well, some airlines have done a great job of really trying to use that as a new way to communicate with them. Delta is a good example, JetBlue, Southwest. They have some really proactive people that are out there, following these things, as Andrea said, looking at, you know, what people are saying and trying to respond quickly. I think that's been great.
SNYDERBut you know, when it comes down to it, if a plane is broken or, you know, there are delays at the airport for air traffic control, you know, there are always going to be problems. This is an industry that, you know, if four out of five flights go on time, then that's a good thing. And so, you know, it always requires some level of patience dealing with the complexity of it, unfortunately.
SNYDERIt becomes a question of what can the airlines do to, sort of, make things easier for travelers when these problems arrive without having to break the bank because ultimately, as I think -- as Charlie said earlier, you know, the airlines now compete primarily on price. That's true in coach, not as much in the front of the cabin. But, you know, in coach, you have people that really would not have been able to fly during regulation 40 years ago. They wouldn't have been able to afford it. And so price is incredibly important. And it's a matter of what can you do for passengers within these constraints of requiring to have, you know, as low prices as you can?
NNAMDIWe'll get to the front of the cabin later in the broadcast, but we have a lot of callers lined up on the runway who would like to get involved in this conversation and we're going to try to make sure that they are not delayed too long. If you'd like to join the conversation, send us a tweet @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on airline travel. With the holiday season coming up and passenger rights, we're talking with Andrea Sachs, travel writer with the Washington Post. Brett Snyder, author of the blog The Cranky Flyer and President and chief of Cranky Concierge air travel assistance. He's also a contributing writer with CNN and Conde Nast Traveler. And Charlie Leocha is the director of the Consumer Travel Alliance.
NNAMDIThat's a non-profit advocacy group for travel consumers. Before we get to the telephones, Charlie, there are other kinds of rights that passengers are challenging airlines over. In two recent cases, passengers were kicked off planes for some pretty unusual seeming reasons. One football player had his pants slung too low. A lesbian couple refused to stop kissing. Did the airlines have a right to remove those passengers?
LEOCHAWell, in terms of rights, the airlines have every right in the world to remove anyone for almost any reason. I think that, what the airlines are trying to do is they're trying to balance the rights of one or two people with the sensibilities of everybody on the plane. And let's face it, this is really --these are really incredibly isolated instances. They don't happen very often.
LEOCHAThey happen so infrequently that they make the headlines every time someone's thrown off a plane for either not dressing properly or having some sort of other activity going on. So I don't think it's a terribly important issue. I think it's more -- it doesn't point to the airlines but it points to the general, social decisions that we make as a country and what's acceptable and what's not acceptable.
NNAMDIBrett, was there possibly more to those stories that we didn't know about?
SNYDEROh, without question. There's almost always more to the story. I mean, I think the formula we usually see is, someone comes out that they say they've been wronged, they go to the media or the media sees a tweet or something like and it goes from there. They never find out, on the other side, what happened. But often, you know, someone says, oh, I was kicked off for this or for wearing a skirt that was too short. When in reality, maybe it was the behavior leading up to that.
SNYDERYou know, maybe it was interactions that they had. But I think this is a really -- it's a tough thing because it's hard to regulate something that's very much a subjective issue. You know, what is appropriate, what is not? I think, one issue that's an interesting one, is you talk about passengers of size. So passengers that are larger that may require two...
NNAMDIHold that thought for one second, please...
SACHSHold that donut.
NNAMDIBecause here is Amy in Herndon, Va. Amy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMYHi, Kojo. I am one of those passengers of size. And I've called the airlines that I fly on, repeatedly, every time we go somewhere and say, what are the measurement requirements for me to have two seats? They don't really have any. It's just if they decide you're too big when you go to the gate, they're going to make a problem. So to try to avoid it, I've always bought two seats.
AMYAnd on more than one occasion, I have had them try to put extra passengers in the seat I already paid for. And when I said, wait a minute, I already paid for that seat, are you going to reimburse me? I get told no. And so I tell them, that person's not sitting there then. I've had them try to put musical instruments in my extra seat. It's really annoying.
NNAMDIYeah, as a matter of fact, Brett, that makes me want to go into a Andy Rooney like rant about why is it, I'm not buying a ticket for the person, I'm only buying a seat? But that's a whole long history of ticket selling that we cannot go into. So could you please respond to Amy's specific concern?
SNYDERAbsolutely. I mean, that -- if they're -- you know, if you paid for an extra seat and the airlines have put something or someone on the aircraft is trying to put something in that seat, that is ridiculous. That shouldn't happen. You know, you've paid for two seats, that's your seat. But you know, in general, I think there are a lot of concerns, specific measurement requirements for people. Amy, it -- you know, it sounds like you would like to have something that's specific, but there are other people that say, well, what are you going to do? Are you going to measure me at the gate and make sure that I'm actually, you know, the right size for this or that?
SNYDERAnd so I think it gets really tough to say, all right, there's specific measurements, you know, without angering another part of the population that might not be happy with that sort of thing. So...
NNAMDIThis is a very sensitive issue we're talking about here, Andrea. On the other hand, you know, there's -- in all of the things we're talking about, there's more than one passenger whose rights are at issue, isn't there?
SACHSOh, absolutely. And this doesn't go just to a weight issue but it goes to children and peanut allergies and you're on a tiny tube, metal tube and it's hard to segregate people and put all the children in the back and then maybe all the peanut allergy kids in the front. And so they have to figure out what to do with this small space and how to balance it with all the different needs and sizes and preferences. So they have a tough job but I do think they need to be more sensitive about it.
NNAMDIBrett, another thing that most people have noticed and if you're on the phone I will get back to the phones. Another thing most people have noticed is that, when you book a flight with your family or a traveling companion, you're no longer, like, automatically seated together, why is that?
SNYDERYeah, the airlines have started segregating the cabin a little bit more where some of the, what they consider better seats, you have to pay for if you want to sit in those seats. It depends on the airline you're dealing with but that means there are just fewer seats available to be assigned in advance. And, you know, unless you want to pay for it. So on one hand, it does give you the opportunity to potentially pay more to get seats that are next to each other.
SNYDERBut on the other hand, it means that if you're traveling with more than one person, you may be penalized. And, you know, the best advice for something like that is to check in as soon as you're able to online, so 24 hours prior for most airlines. And then you'll be able to, hopefully, have your pick of a better selection of seats at that time.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Charlie?
LEOCHAWell, I think that the, you know, the airlines really have to come up with some sort of solution because they're not really letting us know what the total price of travel is. First, we've already mentioned the problems with bags and -- checking bags and so on. We don't find that out, basically, until after you've already bought your airfare and then you're getting ready to check in your bags. And when it comes to seat reservations, it's even more mixed up right now and getting to be more complex as we move forward. So I think it's something that the airlines are going to have to deal with in the future.
NNAMDIHere is Monica in Bethesda, Md. Monica, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MONICAHi. I wanted to respond to the frequent flyer for both for pleasure and business.
MONICASo as a consumer, I find this topic very interesting. And so I'm all about safety and satisfaction but to be on the unbiased side, for me to consider what you were speaking about earlier about fining the airlines rather hefty fines for the tarmac delay, I find very -- a little bit -- well, very concerning to me, very disturbing because I believe we have to give them consequences, obviously, but I, as a proactive point of a view, would see that as defeating the purpose, possibly crippling the carrier further and creating more problems for the consumer on down the line.
MONICAAnd maybe I'm a little paranoid but I'm quite happy being a little bit more patient on the tarmac, even when I'm traveling for business. I just -- and actually I'm a very tardy person so I know what that's like to want to get off the plane but like I said, I just -- not on the airline side but I just don't want to see us crippling the airlines with hefty fines and maybe there's another way that the department of transportation can address those consequences.
NNAMDIAnd Monica, we got this email from Jim in Arlington. "I wouldn't mind increased flight cancellations by airlines concerned about tarmac delay fines because the resulting public opinion might increase the demand for high speed rail development taking down another track, so to speak. But the number one hassle I see in flying, overbooking. If there aren't regulations preventing or penalizing airlines for selling more tickets than seats, there should be." There are, right, Charlie?
LEOCHAYes, there are.
NNAMDIWell, Jim, you should be happy to know. Companies shouldn't be able to sell tickets for something that doesn't exist regardless of the probability that they might open up and I think the government has agreed with Jim.
LEOCHAYes, they have.
NNAMDIAnd so there are fines available now. Onto Tom in Washington, D.C. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMYeah, my thing -- we're talking about consumer rights, flying passenger rights. What about passenger responsibilities? We take it into account that, you know, we can carry on luggage. We got a carry on, there's a very specific size requirement that aren't enforced that the passengers just totally ignore. And then they get to the gate and they bypass that $25 fee because they know that it's going to be too big to fit on the plane, in the overhead.
TOMSo then it gets curbside checked or gate side checked and gets placed under the plane and people carrying on more than they need to. I mean, what about passenger responsibilities in addition to passenger rights? If we're expecting airlines to honor their responsibilities, we as the consumer, we as the passenger, also need to respect the roles and regulations and those sort of things. That's just my opinion.
NNAMDIWell, here's the difficulty with that and I'll put this on Andrea, Tom. Because airlines now charge passengers for their checked bags, tell us what's been the result of that? That's what Tom seems to be experiencing.
SACHSWell, I do side with Tom because there is a lot of boorish behavior and that keeps me biting my tongue from speaking out against my co-passengers. And I know it's frustrating and it's hard and we're all just so low on morale but people really do -- they knowingly take advantage. And often, some people will actually know that their bag is too large to fit on carry on but assume that it's going to be gate checked for which they do not get charged.
SACHSSo they go with this strategy of I'm going to bring a really big elephant sized bag because I know I won't get on, but I'll get it gate checked and I can avoid the money. So I do think the airlines have created this bad situation, but we make it worse because -- and I think we've done this -- Charlie, am I wrong? I think we've been bringing on oversized carry on, even before they started charging.
LEOCHANot you and me.
SACHSNo. I carry it.
NNAMDIJust everybody else, right?
SACHSYes, everyone. But -- so we always -- we're never good at abiding by the rules. I mean, you see the little container that you're supposed to fit in and it's the size of an armadillo. It's tiny. I mean, I couldn't even fit my foot in it. So I don't even know what they're thinking with that. But I do think we need to be more careful about carry on.
NNAMDIWell, Tom, in terms of what you're saying about passenger responsibility, there's this Charlie. There may be one piece of advice that could pay off in the long run. It may not feel as good as bashing the airline or complaining about the service to a flight attendant. But passengers might try being nice to airline staff.
LEOCHAWell, that works all the time. It's something which I've gotten very good at. And even though I'm not necessarily on the same side as the airlines and a lot of passenger rights issues, I certainly feel for the people who are working at the airlines because they, in general, are not paid and exurbanite about of money and they're trying to do their best and they're dealing with so many thousands and thousands of people.
LEOCHAAnd I think that, you know, given the fact that we have so few complaints, overall, they do a pretty darn good job at moving us around. However, I think that some of their regulations, which are set up by the corporate level, people who really aren't in the front lines, frustrate not only passengers, but also the crew.
NNAMDIBut, Brett, when we're standing in that line, frustrated, obviously we can't yell at our kids, we now can't yell at the flight attendants. Obviously, nobody wants to yell at the transportation security administration. Who do we yell at now, Brett?
SNYDERWell, I think everyone wants to yell at the transportation security administration. I think they're just smarter than that. It -- well...
SNYDER...you know, a lot of people have taken to Twitter now, right, so you kind of yell on Twitter and hope that someone listens to you. That's one way to vent your frustrations. But, you know, I think a lot of the issues that travelers face or just from the fact that the industry has changed a lot since pre-regulation or you know, when the industry was regulated back -- up until the late '70s. And it used to be, fares were regulated, you paid a high amount of money and service was very -- of a very high level.
SNYDERBut since that time, things have changed dramatically focusing more on, you know, the price level. And that means that what people expect may not have changed as quickly as the industry has had the change. And so things like bag fees, you know, who says that you should have a check bag included in the price of your ticket? That's the way that it was. And so that's why people feel that's the way it is. And now I saw, there's a new bill being proposed by a senator from Louisiana to require that airlines allow one free checked bag.
NNAMDIAnd has been co-sponsored by Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. It would require airlines to allow one free checked bag. May be a good thing for passengers, Charlie, but will airlines just put that fee in the ticket price?
LEOCHAOf course. But, you know, I really don't mind it as long as the passengers -- as long as the airlines tell us how much the total cost of travel is. I think that consumers aren't going to be upset. What we get upset about, is we get upset about being nickeled and dimed and feeling like every time we go around the corner, there's a new fee. But one of the other things that might help, is it might help in terms of moving through TSA faster because people will go ahead and check more bags.
LEOCHAAnd then we don’t have so many people being checked at the TSA security lines. And even the director of the TSA has said that the baggage rules make it more difficult for them because more people are carrying on more items. So there are lots of unintended consequences to these rules. And I think that we need to maintain some flexibility and I think that the airlines need to listen to consumers a little bit more and we probably need to listen to the airlines a little bit more. And we're all kind of working together to work our way through these systems.
NNAMDIAndrea Sachs, what do you hear from people? Wouldn't most people prefer, as Charlie's saying, fees to be up front in the ticket price so they can compare?
SACHSI hear that a lot. People would rather just have that price and it includes everything, almost like a cruise ship. You know you're going to get your food and your cabin. And they just want it all there and they don’t have to worry about when they get to the airport, they're going to have to pay extra for their bag or when they pick a seat they're going to have to pay extra to have an exit row. They just want it -- they want to pay one price and get on the plane and not have to worry about anything.
NNAMDIHere is Marilyn in Northwest Washington who has a particular view, if I may use that term, Marilyn, about that situation.
MARILYNI think so.
NNAMDIMarilyn, go ahead, please.
MARILYNThe charge for checking your first bag really annoys me very much. I'm blind. I could not possibly carry onto the plane some of the humongous bags that people carry on, and I do have to have some clothes and things to wear on the trip. There's a limit to how much I can fit in a normal-sized carry-on bag, and yet, they're gonna charge me for checking a single bag, which is all I usually take besides my carry-on, and it just annoys me that if...
NNAMDIIf the price of checking that bag were simply including in your ticket price, Marilyn, would you prefer that?
MARILYNYes. I would prefer that. I would prefer they tell me what, you know, I mean, what happened -- one time what happened to me, I had to check it in after I got to the airport, and then they said, well, we can't take cash, you'll have to put it on your credit card. So I had to dig out my credit card and go through all that. Yeah. I would rather they would tell me what they include in the ticket, even if I had to pay for it up front as part of the ticket. I think I'd prefer that to all this aggravation of having to figure out what to do, you know.
NNAMDIYou know, all of the airline heads are listening to this broadcast, so you're being heard every place, Marilyn. Thank you.
SACHSThey're calling in now.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call.
SACHSJust one comment.
SACHSIf you book online, you can -- it's almost a la carte. You can pay for your bag, and there are certain things you can do before you arrive at the airport, so you don't have to worry.
SACHSExactly. You can pick your seat, you can pay for your bags, you can print out your boarding pass. You just have to show up at the -- oh, Charlie has a point.
LEOCHAYeah. All of that is true, but you can only do that after you've bought your ticket and you're getting ready to check in. When you're buying your ticket, there's no good way for you to compare what the overall cost of travel is going to be, and that's been one of our mantras over the last two years. We're trying to find ways to allow the public to know how much it's gonna cost. I don't mind what the airlines are doing in terms of adding fees. I don't like it, but at least tell us how much it's gonna cost.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Brett, when we come back, I'm coming straight to you because I want to know exactly how the airlines are doing, and you can add that the comment you were about to make, but I do have to take a short break. Marilyn, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. What are your tips for finding the best fares, something we'll be talking about when we come back. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking airline travel and passenger rights with Andrea Sachs, travel writer with the Washington Post, Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance non-profit, advocacy group for travel consumers, and Brett Snyder, author of the blog, "The Cranky Flier" and president and chief of the Cranky Concierge Air Travel Assistance. He's also a contributing writer with CNN and Conde Nast Traveler. So Brett, how are airlines doing financially?
SNYDERWell, the airlines are posting, you know, some decent profits for the first time in quite a while. Much of that is coming from fee revenue, especially in light of the tremendous increase in the cost of fuel, which is now the largest cost for many airlines, single cost. But, I want to go back to fees for a second.
SNYDERThe people that are complaining of having to pay bag fees, are the people who check a bag. But there a lot of people who don't check bags, and they don't -- they don't mind bag fees because they don't have to pay them. So it's truly an optional service. Now, if there are fees out there that aren't really optional, then those should be rolled into the price of the ticket, but for things that truly are optional, I haven't checked a bag in quite a long time. That's gonna change, I have a baby on the way. But, you know, for me, I don't mind bag fees because I get a lower base fare, and if I need to check a bag I can pay more for that option.
NNAMDIIs this correct? We got a tweet, "Ways to avoid baggage fees. Become an elite frequent flier or obtain an airline-sponsored credit card." Can you avoid baggage fees simply by obtaining an airline-sponsored credit card?
SNYDERYeah, you can. Some airlines actually have that option. I know Delta has one that has that, and I believe there's one with United now where if you get one of their sponsored credit cards you can do that. Elite members, it's a similar thing, in most airlines you can avoid baggage fees. And I will say, what Charlie was saying about disclosure, I think that's really important, but most people when they're looking to compare airfare, they're not going to the airline site directly, they're going to third-party sites, whether it's a metasearch site or an online travel agent.
SNYDERAnd so much of the fault for not being able to -- for people not being able to compare falls onto those sites as well for not providing the information to people.
NNAMDIWe have to deal with this for a little while. Even as coach class gets downgraded, first class is really taking off. Brett, what kinds of frills do you get if you're willing to spend $15,000 on a flight?
SNYDERSure. If you're looking to travel internationally, it's a whole different story. Domestically, first class isn't much different. It's a slightly bigger seat, maybe still some food. But internationally you can expect -- on some airlines, you can even get a full suite with a door, international airlines primarily that do that. You know, a tremendous amount of space, you know, excellent service, fine wines and food, and pretty much anything that you could hope for for a long-haul trip. Now...
SNYDER...whether it's worth paying 15 or $20,000, that's a whole different story.
NNAMDIWell, that's what you're paying for first class. Andrea, Charlie, for those of us who are not flying first class...
SACHSThat would be me.
NNAMDIYours truly also. You suggest that one online site may not be enough to get the best deals. What's your advice for getting the best ticket deals?
SACHSI -- well, I typically go to -- I shop around, but I think you need to go to -- as much as the airlines want you to go to them, you need to go to Kayak and Trip Advisor and Orbitz and all those, because they offer flight configurations that the airline will not. So, for example, they might piece together you fly United out, you return on Delta. You fly out of National, you return to BWI and you get -- it's a little inconvenient, but you get a much cheaper ticket. So you need to kind of shop around to see if there are ways to mix and match your fare for a cheaper fare.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Charlie?
LEOCHAI agree 100 percent. And one of the other things, and back to one of the points that Brett was just making is that I think that that online travel agencies would love to be able to provide baggage fees and seat reservation fees and so on if the airlines would tell them, but the airlines are withholding this information from even the online travel agencies, and even the on -- the travel agents that you go to on the corner. So that's what's so frustrating about this.
LEOCHAThe airlines don't want to tell you these fees up front, and yet they won't even tell travel agents what the fees are. They're still holding it close to their chest.
NNAMDIBrett, what's your advice for getting the best deals?
SNYDERI certainly agree shopping around is, you know, always important, particularly international. You might find more options when you're looking at more complex long-haul trips. There is -- there's a great site that I like to use. You can't actually book on it, but you can go to it and get a lot of flight options, and then you'd have to find someone who can actually book the itinerary for you, but it's called matrix.itasoftware.com, and it's put out by ITA Software which, when I was on the show last time, we talked about the acquisition by Google of that company.
NNAMDIYeah. We sure did. Onto the telephones again. Here is Ophelia in Arlington, Va. Ophelia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OPHELIAHi Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to comment on an experience I had this summer where I had purchased a ticket that was partnered by United, Van Air, and apparently Aer Lingus, and I purchased the ticket for my son who was, at the time, 10 years old to fly unaccompanied. And I spoke to United twice and they told me that I had to pay an unaccompanied minor fee. I said that's fine, and then I tried to pay it at the airport at Dulles and then they said, no, just pay it in Madrid.
OPHELIAAnd then when I left Spain with my son still there, I went to pay it and they told me that my son couldn't fly unaccompanied because that flight was being operated by Aer Lingus. But I knew none of this, even though I had spoken to United, and...
NNAMDISo United and Aer Lingus have different regulations for children flying?
OPHELIAThat's right. That's right. But they were -- and it was a shared flight so the -- and when I spoke to United, which is who I thought I was buying the tickets through, which it turned out I was, in fact, buying the ticket through Van Air -- which shouldn't matter because they all have regulations permitting unaccompanied minors, except for that the flight that -- it turned out that the operating airline was Aer Lingus and they don't permit unaccompanied minor flights.
OPHELIASo I had to buy a brand new ticket and get someone to bring my son home to me in September. So I thought that was really interesting because this is all about the idea that airlines don't give you this information when you purchase tickets or -- you see what I'm saying?
NNAMDIYes. We see what you're saying.
LEOCHAThis is something which is, from my point of view, and from the Consumer Travel Alliance's point of view, it's a giant problem, and this is a problem of code sharing, where you buy your ticket -- you can buy a ticket and have a Delta ticket, it says -- all your flights say Delta flights, Delta flights, Delta flights, but you're never on a Delta airplane. Even internationally, you'll fly from New York to Paris on an Air France airplane, then you go from Paris to Rome on an Alitalia plane, and you come home via KLM flying over Amsterdam. You've never been on a Delta flight.
LEOCHAYou bought it on a Delta website, you've only seen the Delta contract of carriage, whose rules apply, and I think that the Department of Transportation has looked at this, and hopefully that's gonna be changing in January and the marketing carrier, the person who's actual designator is on the ticket, is the one whose rules are going to apply. But then you run into problems when you get to Paris because they say, well, you know, we don't care what DOT says, your rules are changing and now you're going by Alitalia's rules. So it's a real conundrum.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ophelia. Brett, for some people flying this holiday season, there are some things that may be different. Passengers might be issued something called a weather waiver. What's that?
SNYDERWell, airplanes put out weather waivers, they've been more aggressive at doing this over the last couple of years, where if there's expected to be some sort of storm coming, you know, as I mentioned, you know, fall or winter snow storm, something like that, they'll tell people look, you can change your flights without charge, you know, a few days on either side of this flight just so that we can kind of get you out of, you know, the potential weather issue that they see coming.
NNAMDIHere's Bill in Eastern Maryland. Hi, Bill. Your turn.
BILLHi, how you doing today, Kojo? Great discussion, maybe a little overdue, but a great discussion. As a former airline pilot, you know, tarmac delays unfortunately for the flight crew are somewhat inevitable due to circumstances regarding air space, the air traffic control system, and weather. And when I see this passenger Bill of Rights penalizing the companies, although I don't always agree with their philosophy, it's like putting a huge cart behind a horse and then whipping the horse because he can't pull the cart.
BILLYou know, sometimes when we're sitting out on the ramp or out on the tarmac, our hands are virtually tied. We have slots to make, we have a slot at the destination airport as well as the departure airport, and missing those slots does in fact cause us to cancel the flight. Primary job is to get the passengers safely from point A to point B, and most of us out there, that's our job, and that's what we want to do. We don't want to sit on the tarmac just to get more money as that one flight attendant said. That's not really what we're in it for.
NNAMDISo Bill, you think it's our complex national air space system that's really to blame for all of this?
BILLTwo things go along with that. One, the hub and spoke system of the current airline structure is -- it's abysmal and it doesn't work. It worked great prior to deregulation. But right now, it doesn't work too well, and now that the FAA is getting more involved in point-to-point flying, for example, I can go from, you know, New York to L.A. direct and not have to go some convoluted route to get to where I need to be. That frees up some of the airspace, because we're all not traveling along the same interstates in the sky so to speak.
BILLSo there are some movement to free up the pilots hands, but as far as management goes, they're a long way from good, and it's gonna take a long time for them to get any better.
NNAMDIOkay, Bill. Thank you very much for your call.
SACHSIf I could just say one thing quickly.
NNAMDIPlease do, Andrea.
SACHSI don't want to cut off a caller. I think what's important, we understand the realities that there are delays and there are things that we cannot -- there are so many variables, communication is so key. So just let me know why I'm sitting there. Just keep up the banter, let me know why I'm sitting there, what do you think.
NNAMDIWhy are there -- Bill, maybe you can explain this, because Andrea -- why are there such long pauses between what the pilot tells you is going on. Sometimes you're sitting there for an hour and you hear nothing at all from the pilot or crew. Bill, what explains that?
BILLYeah. That's absolutely there's no explanation for that. I'll give you a quick example. I was sitting in La Guardia and we had a delay, and it was right when the airline that I was working for decided that they were going to charge for beverages, and it was an extremely hot day, and the aircraft was relatively hot. So I told the passengers we were delayed for at least an hour, but the good news was that I was sending the flight attendants down the aisles to give out free drinks.
BILLI later got a call from my chief pilot trying -- for me to explain why I decided to give out free drinks to these passengers that had been already inconvenienced. But as far as passengers not knowing exactly why you're delayed or the pilot's not telling you, there's no excuse for that. Typically, if I heard something from air traffic control, I relayed it almost immediately to the passengers because at the end of the night when the passengers leave, I have to deal with the flight attendants.
BILLAnd when the flight attendants aren't happy because the passengers are yelling at them, then that makes my day quite a bit...
NNAMDIWhat's wrong with a ten-minute update? Bill, thank you for your call.
SACHSRight. Even if you don't have information, just say, we're still checking into it. We'll let you know as soon as possible, go shopping in your Sky Mall catalog, or something.
NNAMDICharlie, what's new in security screening?
LEOCHAOh, I'm not sure anything's new. Well, one of the new things is that they're trying to go to risk-based model, and they're starting that out with using frequent fliers from American Airlines and Delta I believe, at a series of four airports across the country. That may or may not help. It's only -- it's definitely gonna help some of the real frequent fliers.
NNAMDIAnd it's my understanding that at least in some places, your children, if they're under 12, won't have to take their shoes off.
LEOCHAThat's one of the new rules that they're coming out with. And, you know, I will say, the TSA has got a big job to do, and it's a -- it's a tough job because you're hassling people all the time whether they like to or not. But I think that the biggest problems that we have with TSA right now is that we're still looking for things that should -- were banned ten years ago which no longer are real problems, such as pen knives and toenail clippers and stuff like that. We need to focus on explosives and forget about all this other stuff.
NNAMDIWell, we're just about out of time, but I think one of the best bits of advice that have come out today is advice for getting the best ticket deal, look around, shop around, check on as many websites as you possibly can. I'm afraid we're out of time. Andrea Sachs, happy traveling this weekend.
SACHSThank you. Have a great holiday.
NNAMDIAndrea's a travel writer with the Washington Post. Charlie Leocha is director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a non-profit advocacy group for travel consumers. Are you traveling this weekend?
LEOCHANo. I'm gonna be right here in the D.C. area.
NNAMDIBrett Snyder is the author of the blog, "The Cranky Flier" and president and chief of Cranky Concierge Air Travel Assistance. He's also a contributing writer with CNN and Conde Naste Traveler. Brett, thank you for joining us.
SNYDERThanks very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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