What a Real Passenger Bill of Rights Should Look Like
The violent ejection of a United Airlines passenger from a flight bound from Chicago to Louisville appears to have marked a long-awaited turning point. Dr. David Dao, 69, suffered a broken nose, lost two teeth and faces reconstructive sinus surgery. At last, America’s long-suffering flying public is crying as one, have you commercial airlines no shame?
Americans have been mad as hell. Now, it seems, they’re not going to take it anymore.
How will the politics of protecting travelers from rapacious — and sometimes brutal — air carriers play out? With the Republicans in control of all three branches of government, will this moment pass without significant legislative action as did the mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut? Or will Trump’s Congress be forced to act?
Thanks to nickel-and-diming us with $30 baggage and seat fees, the airlines are raking in billions. So they can easily afford changes that benefit consumers but cost their bottom lines.
Even the IRS is more popular than the airlines. So politicians aren’t taking any risks by taking them on.
Now is the time to act. Consumer advocates should set a high bar for their demands — and insist that Democrats get behind them. Dems should be able partner with Republicans on this one; “airlines suck” is bipartisan.
What would a genuinely kickass passenger bill of rights look like?
Americans sometimes point to Europe as an example. But the EU code is toothless.
Case study: A service truck ran into my Norwegian Airlines plane before its scheduled morning takeoff from Martinique. The plane was grounded indefinitely. Understandable. Less understandable was how Norwegian treated us: late that that night, they flew us to the neighboring French island of Guadeloupe, put us up in a filthy, dangerous motel and flew us to New York the next day — more than 24 hours later.
EU rules say I should have received 400 euros compensation for the delay. Citing the time-honored corporate doctrine of “we don’t feel like paying just because,” the jerks at Norwegian denied my claim. Norway’s national aviation authorities gave me the brush-off, referring me to France. I contacted the French — lucky for me I’m fluent, but what if you’re not? — who’ve never bothered to reply.
Airlines poll just behind price-gouging low-service cable companies as America’s most hated business sector. This is a disaster. Since radical problems require radical solutions, let’s think big.
Class Warfare: Trudging through first class to steerage isn’t just an insult to human dignity. In a country that overthrew aristocracy, special titles and privileges (business class, Sky Club members, Platinum Gold Whatever) are anti-American. The airline class system incents efficiency experts to target the flying top 1% with beds at the expense of such amenities as room for the knees of the 99%. The Department of Transportation should ban class distinctions. Let all seats be created equal.
One Price Fits All: Obama-era DOT rules require airlines to clearly post fees for “extra” services like luggage. Two pieces, plus a purse or briefcase or small backpack, ought to be part of the flat fee everyone pays. The current system, in which the stripped-down Spirit appears as cheapest in listings but hits you up for $50 a bag and so winds up being the most expensive, is ridiculous.
NOverbooking: McDonald’s can’t sell the same Big Mac to two customers. How does it make sense to allow airlines to sell 140 tickets on a plane with 120 seats? That’s overbooking. If a paid passenger misses her fight, sell it to a standby if there is one. Otherwise let the seat fly empty and let us stretch a little.
Ban Surge Pricing: Sophisticated algorithms designed to maximize airline profits have frequent flyers sharing dubious tips (Tuesday is the cheapest day to buy your ticket) and clearing their web browser cookies to stymie airlines whose prices mysteriously creep up after each search (buy now or else). Whether on Uber or United, surge pricing is creepy and annoying and requires too much work for flyers. Set a price and stick with it, dammit! SFO to JFK on Delta should cost the same regardless of the time of day or day of week.
No Preferential Seating: With the exception of families traveling with small children, the disabled and trying to keep groups together, seats should be assigned randomly without consideration for frequent flier status or anything else. Particularly disgusting has been the recent practice of airlines that only allow advanced assignments for premium extra-cost seats, fooling some victims into buying something they don’t need and stressing out everyone else.
Ergonomic Reform: Leg room, pitch and seat width in coach have been shrunken to the point that the average person is cramped and uncomfortable. For safety reasons alone — evacuating a stricken aircraft through narrow aisles and rows is slow and thus dangerous — the FAA should set significantly more generous minimum standards for seat spacing. A middle-seat passenger ought to be able to get out to go the restroom without forcing his neighbor on the aisle to stand up.
Last and perhaps least, my personal bugaboo: what’s up with those last rows in some planes, where the seats can’t recline? That’s just mean.