Finding the Solution to Airline Customer Service
Is introducing a passenger "bill of rights" the answer?
If you were trapped in an airplane for close to eight hours and you had had minimal food and water, no fresh air or access to suitable toilets, and you had no idea when you would get out or how you would reach your final destination—what would you do? JetBlue Airways, known for its low costs and exceptional service, put multiple flights and hundreds of people in this same situation in February stranding passengers on New York’s JFK tarmac for up to eight hours due to inclement weather. While other airlines had difficulties during this same time, JetBlue continued to experience delays and flight cancellations during the days that followed, further tainting their name and costing the company close to $30 million in reimbursement fees and flight cancellations. Passengers fight back California real estate agent Kate Hanni, leading the fight to have legislation passed for a universal passengers’ bill of rights, used JetBlue’s misfortune as momentum for her own struggle. After being stranded on an American Airlines flight for close to eight hours during an emergency landing in Austin, Texas, Hanni was delayed in arriving at her destination, Mobile, Ala., for two days over the New Year. Describing her frustration with long and unexplained delays she said, “Legislation will give us all what we want—to be able to reasonably predict what will happen when we buy a plane ticket and check our luggage.” To head off government regulation, airlines have adopted new procedures to better deal with situations like these and ultimately provide better customer service. American Airlines created a policy promising not to keep passengers on the runway for longer than four hours. While this policy is only a verbal agreement with the airline and its customers, the rule has not been added to American’s contract of carriage, a legal contract issued between an airline and its passengers upon ticket purchase, which still uses the words “reasonable amount of time” to refer to delays and the time a plane can spend on the tarmac, explained Hanni. Founder and chief executive of JetBlue David Neeleman expressed his humiliation after the airline’s breakdown and adopted a JetBlue Customer Bill of Rights to compensate and reassure customers. While the agreement mentions cancellations, departure and ground delays and vouchers, it uses the words “controllable irregularity” throughout the document when referring to delays which has caused some, including Hanni, to be skeptical of the bill. “This legislation is necessary because weather is subjective,” explained Hanni. “Using this language in their Bill of Rights allows them to decide what is considered bad weather as a caveat to get out of compensation.” Who is responsible for customer service? Many air travelers see legislation as the only way to ensure adequate customer service; however, older generations may remember a time when the airline industry was completely regulated by the government. Since 1938, the Civil Aeronautics Board had regulated everything down to airfare, airline capacity and which airlines could fly where and when. By 1978 there had been so many regulations that Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act, allowing the airlines to decide where they wanted to fly and how much to charge. Since the deregulation, customers have experienced decreased fares and increased customer service. Sam Pelztman and Clifford Winston’s “Deregulation of Network Industries: What’s next?” reports that since 1994 air travelers have received stable fare reductions of 27 percent and annual net benefits exceeding $20 billion for fares and service quality. Winston, a Brookings Institution scholar of transportation economics, thinks the answer is not Congress legislation, explaining that a law against airlines could complicate the problem and cause further restraints. “The heart of the problem is that the news is focusing on JetBlue,” said Winston. “While it is going to be an easy target, the real problem is how airports operate.” Airports are publicly owned and have a symbiotic relationship with airlines. While airports are not for profit and receive minimal income from airlines renting terminal facilities and charging landing fees, they also depend on the airlines to back the bonds they issue to help pay for the upkeep of the terminals and runways. For this reason, the airports strive to keep the airlines content, ultimately giving the airlines an upper hand in this relationship, explained Winston. Although the airports own the infrastructure, including the gates and the taxiway, their sensitive relationship with the airlines and the little incentive there is to improve customer service has caused airports to neglect their duty of policing the runway. With respect to economics, by keeping passengers on planes and avoiding flight cancellations, airlines are doing what they should to achieve a high degree of aircraft utilization. “Planes are extremely expensive,” said Winston. “They want their planes up there, flying, and with people in them.” When planes are delayed on the tarmac, as was in the case of JetBlue, it becomes the airport’s responsibility to be the driving force getting things moving one way or another, either up and out or back to the gate to de-board, said Winston. With the latest epidemic of this type of airline crisis, it has become routine to blame the carrier because they deal directly with the customers. However, Winston argues that making the airport a profit seeking company is the only way to solve these problems and improve customer service; privatizing airports might be one way to do this. Giving airports the independence they need, to do what they should, will allow the airports to set their own rules and do their job right. Some believe that until airports have the incentive to do so, customer service will not improve.