Are Airlines Keeping Their Promises?

Consumers' Research Magazine, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Are Airlines Keeping Their Promises?


Last year, facing the prospect of being required to abide by a "passenger bill of rights," the Air Transport Association and its member airlines agreed to improve airline customer service. The agreement, detailed in a document called the Airline Customer Service Commitment (the Commitment), consisted of 12 provisions that were to be fully implemented by December 15, 1999. In June, the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General issued its interim report on how well the airlines have followed through on the Commitment. The preliminary results were mixed.

Most of the provisions of the Commitment were either already required by law or were already a part of the airlines' policies and procedures. (See "The Airlines' New Service Proposal," CR, December 1999.) Of the twelve provisions, only two were completely new. Those two new provisions have been fully implemented, said the OIG: The airlines did petition the DOT for an increase in the baggage liability limit from $1,250 to $2,500. (The DOT increased the baggage liability limit to $2,500 and indexed the limit to inflation.) And the airlines now allow reservations to be held or cancelled within 24 hours. (But this applies only to reservations made over the airlines' telephone reservation systems, and the airlines are not required to notify customers of the policy.)

The OIG found that even when the airlines did revise policies and procedures to improve customer service per the Commitment, the execution of the policies and procedures was not always consistent. The OIG also noted that the terms of some of the provisions are too ambiguous to constitute an enforceable standard. In those instances, the airlines themselves cannot even tell for sure if they have improved customer service.

In addition, the OIG found many instances of discrepancies between an airline's customer service plan and its "contract of carriage". This situation means that even though an airline may have made a promise through its plan, that promise does not constitute a legally enforceable right of the passenger. (See sidebar on page 26.)

The following excerpt from the OIG report presents telling observations on six of the provisions of the Airline Customer Service Commitment.

--Ed.

Promise: Offer the Lowest Fare Available. The airlines committed to offer the lowest fare available for which the customer is eligible on the airline's telephone reservation system for the date, flight, and class of service requested.

The airlines did not commit to guaranteeing the customer that the quoted fare is the lowest fare the airline has to offer. There may be lower fares available through the airlines' Internet sites that are not available through the airlines' telephone reservation systems. Also, the airlines did not commit always to offer the lowest fare for reservations made or tickets purchased at the airlines' airport customer service counters or city ticket offices. Further, the airlines did not commit to disclose that there may be lower fares available through other distribution outlets, making it incumbent on the customer to know that lower price alternatives may be available.

Our limited testing of this provision found that the airlines' telephone reservation agents usually offered us the lowest fare available for which we were eligible. In cases where we were not offered the lowest fare, it was due to employees not following established procedures. There were a sufficient number of cases in which the lowest fare was not offered to warrant that the airlines pay special attention to this area.

Promise: Notify Customers of Known Delays, Cancellations, and Diversions. The airlines committed to notify customers at the airport and on-board an affected aircraft, in a timely manner, of the best available information regarding known delays, cancellations, and diversions. In addition, each airline would establish and implement policies for accommodating passengers delayed overnight.

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