web Musings of The Global Traveller

Monday, January 18, 2010

US Passenger Bill of Rights

When the US Passenger Bill of Rights (PBOR) were published last month I posted a brief mention but did not explain how they benefit flyers and how they have some limitations.

Overall approach

The US rights (link to full text here) are less comprehensive than the corresponding EU rights (EU regulation 261/2004) in that certain standards are left up to airlines to define and publish as policies. Ie the rule is there must be a policy and it must be published, but airlines are free to set their own standards in some respects.

That is not good for consumers. We already have variability in airline contract of carriage which also must be published, but such a miniscule proportion of flyers read them that there really is no competition between airlines to provide terms that are great for their customers.

Onboard on the ground time limited to 3 hours

There are some parts of the PBOR which are relatively set. Airlines cannot keep passengers onboard on the ground for more than 3 hours for domestic flights, or more than a time of their choosing (which must be published) for international flights. There are exemptions where the airport agrees that immediate disembarkation will be highly disruptive to airport operations. This clause is open to interpretation - it could be that airlines routinely are exempt due to inconvenience, or perhaps not.

At congested airports, in poor weather, and in unusual circumstances a rigourous enforcement of the time limit may result in more crowded terminals (boarding delayed if a risk of exceeding the 3 hours), more flight cancellations and reduced flights more generally. I'm not sure this is necessarily good for travellers.

Publish contingency plans

The PBOR has a requirement for airlines to publish contingency plans for every airport they fly to including any diversion airports, and to be accountable to passengers for following those contingency plans.

This seems to me to be a complete waste of time. Either the contingency plans published will be specific and then result in messy litigation afterwards when they are not followed properly, or they will be written as vague as possible to ensure the airline has sufficient flexibility to deal with varying circumstances and thus the airline can never be held accountable for errors in dealing with irregular operations. I much prefer the European approach which sets out what airlines must do at a minimum, for passengers affected by cancellations and delays. The question of how that is achieved is left to each airline to resolve.

Publish on-time performance

Every flight bookable on the airline website must include reference or a link to information on on-time performance of that flight. The PBOR sets out the required stats which includes cancellations as well as significant delays. The Department of Trade (DOT) will monitor flights which have excessively bad on-time performance and take punitive action against the airline (after 4 months with 50+% of flights 30+ minutes late arriving).

It is pleasing to see that DOT recognise that arrival time is more important than departure time. However, these requirements are likely to see even more schedule padding than already exists. While this makes valid connections easier to be made, it does have the disadvantages of making some connections which are currently legal (ie more than minimum connection times) illegal and thus reduces options for travellers.

How much benefit for flyers?

As with the EU regulation 261/2004, how well the US Passenger Bill of Rights works in practice will depend on interpretation by airlines and by the regulator, as well as the regulator's enforcement (or lack of) of the rules. In the EU the general impression is initially the regulations were not well enforced (airlines routinely using safety and circumstances out of their control exemptions) but it seems to have improved slightly over the past year or so. However, still many airlines do not meet the requirements - for example in the recent weather disruptions there are reports several airlines did not provide their customers with information on their minimum rights nor did they provide those automatically.

So, it probably is up to all the travelling public to be aware of our rights and demand airlines provide them when they are supposed to. Hopefully DOT will publish a handy leaflet which we can carry, much as EU has.

No comments: