Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Global Travel Congress

Kate Speaks to Global Travel Congress

Hurricane Irene Shatters Air Schedules

What Are Your Cancellation Rights?

FlyersRights Helps Again

Kate Speaks to Global Congress on Travel

On August 26th and 27th, our Executive Director addressed the Global Congress on Legal, Safety, and Security Issues in Travel. The Global Congress, held in Houston's George P. Brown Convention Center August 25-28, was designed to facilitate safe, secure and uninterrupted travel via an all-encompassing public-privatedialogue dedicated to the sharing of best practices for the global travel, tourism, and hospitality industries.

On August 26th Kate participated in "What Have We Learned from Recent Travel Disruptions," a panel discussion held with senior officials from the Association of Corporate Travel Executives,, the Professional Convention Management Association, and conTgo, a company that produces mobile travel aid applications.

What she learned was that viewpoints differ widely in the travel industry. Kate was your voice in the discussion, as usual. One panel member insisted that the traveling public is mostly interested in problems associated with TSA, not flight delays, while another actually argued with an audience member who said that he felt undervalued as an air traveler. Our Director assured them that while TSA issues are very important to us, delays are the bane of our travel experience, and that we do, overwhelmingly, feel undervalued and harassed.

The audience erupted into applause.

Saturday, Kate presented to a full house "Traveler Rights: Best Practices in Public Ports When Passengers Are Stranded". She discussed who we are, what we do, and why we do it. The presentation, while humorous and fast-paced, delivered two key messages:

  • Communication, cooperation, and collaboration are conspicuously absent from air travel. Despite years of promises, massive weather problems still create nightmarish passenger situations as airlines, airport managers, and government agencies fail to coordinate their response.
  • Passenger confusion over shifting and inconsistently-applied rules is a major contributor to "travel hell." Hidden fees make fare comparison challenging. Even calling customer service might cost money. We fear arbitrary application of airport security rules-rules that are not published. Flight crews may object to our attire and deny boarding while one airline promotes bikini-clad women on the sides of its airplanes. There is no standard for passenger conduct, and flight crew decisions are final.

She told the wide variety of travel buyers, suppliers, and supporters that we are all in this together. Stranded air travelers miss hotel reservations, car rentals, and cruises. Travel is a system, interconnected by the travelers.

Hurricane Irene Shatters Air Schedules

Weather is the largest single cause of flight cancellations, and last weekend's storm absolutely shattered airline schedules. The effects on the east coast are obvious, but the profound ripple effect vividly demonstrated how fragile our air travel system is.

Irene's march up our east coast caused about 13,000 flight cancellations. ThoseHurricane Irene Pathcancellations were not only at airports directly affected by the storm, but spread throughout the country as flights from other airports found their destinations closed.

The domino effect continued as aircraft and crews were not in position for their follow-on segments. Airlines also moved several hundred airplanes out of harm's way, further disrupting resumption of service.

While airports are now open, disruptions may continue for several days. If you have travel plans, check your reservation status, and check your flight status frequently as your travel date approaches this week. If you encounter problems you can't solve, contact the FlyersRights Hotline at (877) 359-6776.

What Are Your Cancellation Rights?

As experienced air travelers know, plans can be interrupted for an astonishing array of reasons. Almost all of those reasons are beyond our control; many of them are beyond the airlines' control, and some would not have occurred if the airlines had been doing their job. So, the answer to the question is "It depends."

Cancelled Flight BoardFor any cancellation, you can either request a cash refund or accept a voucher, but the voucher ties you to that airline. The urgency of your travel may help you make that decision. A new booking with the same airline may be easier to come by, and a one-way, short lead time ticket on another airline will almost certainly be very expensive. Interline agreements that once allowed you to take your ticket to any other airline's counter for immediate booking are no longer common.

If you can't get an immediate rebooking, you will need lodging and food. Here's where "it depends." If the cancellation was because of a mechanical problem or something else the airline controls (crew availability, for example), then the airline must provide accommodations, usually amounting to a hotel stay and small meal voucher.

On the other hand, for uncontrollable circumstances, the short answer is "You're on your own!" No lodging, no food, see you in the morning. The FlyersRights Hotline log is full of member complaints detailing airline insistence that their controllable delays were actually weather-related. Often, the crew first cited mechanical difficulties, and other airline officials shifted to the old "weather defense."

If you find your flight cancelled, gather as much information as you can. Use your smartphone to record any cabin announcements regarding delay reasons. Here's a trick-if you're already on board, conspire with a fellow passenger. Have the other person ask for the delay reason while you take a vid of the conversation on your smartphone. Get the names of crew members who speak about the delay reason.

FlyersRights Helps Again

FlyersRights member Lisa K. had one of "those trips" on Delta last month, and turned to our Hotline (877-359-6776) for help. In the course of that trip, she and her husband experienced three delayed-and then cancelled-flights. When Delta offered neither help nor apology, she turned to us.

The first cancellation was for mechanical reasons, and the others were attributed toDelta Airlinesweather. As we said in the Cancellation Rights article, mechanical reasons are the airlines' fault, just like any other cause they could have prevented, but weather cancellations leave us on our own. Delta focused on the weather cancellations when denying Lisa and her husband any help at all.

When Lisa called our Hotline, our Hotline Director, Dr. Joel Smiler, connected her with our Delta contact-their Director of Customer Care. After a brief exchange, Delta provided some compensation and an apology. Here's what Lisa said to Joel:

We really appreciate your assistance....I doubt we would have received anything if you hadn't helped us. I was also told that they will use our experience to improve their service...hopefully they will follow through and help future Delta passengers avoid the problems we had. Thanks's a relief to know that an organization like flyers rights is out there to help people deal with these types of situations!

We very much appreciate Delta's increasing customer focus. The Hotline is there for you, absolutely free, 24/7. You iPhone users should also check out our iPhone App on the website.

Remember, for the very latest in airline passenger rights news, Facebook users can "like" the FlyersRights Fan Page. Also, please check in on our Flyers Rights Education Fund Cause Page.

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"The War Is Not Over"
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Hotline: (877) 359-3776

Sunday, August 21, 2011

August Newsletter

No Refund of FAA Taxes

When the FAA was shut down for two weeks by Congressional inaction on the FAA Reauthorization Bill, the agency also lost authorization to collect their normal 7.5% ticket tax, $3.70 tax on each segment of travel, and $16.30 international arrival/departure tax. Although you pay the tax at time of ticket purchase, it is legally only collected at the time the ticket is used. So, if you bought your ticket before July 22 but flew after that date, you were charged taxes that the FAA could not collect.

In our last newsletter, we reported an IRS statement saying that people in that situation might be due a refund. However, the August 10th IRS news release on the issue made it clear that this isn't the case. When Congress passed the FAA Bill Extension on August 8th, they retroactively reinstated the taxes. It's as if the interruption never occurred.

So, there will be no refunds. On the other hand, the IRS has decided that it will not retroactively collect taxes from those of you who bought tickets during the two-week shutdown period.

The House is also considering a bill to pay the 4,000 laid-off FAA workers for their furlough time. However, the tens of thousands of construction workers laid off when FAA construction projects were put on hold are just out of luck.

Remember all those airlines that simply raised their prices to pocket the uncollected taxes? Some airlines returned prices to normal quickly and some were dragging their feet. While we were very disappointed when Southwest participated in this scam, we are glad to note that they were among the first to roll prices back. Almost all domestic carriers are starting the process. As Kate said in the article, we're pleasantly surprised.

Delta and American Redefine Customer Focus

After a period of demonstrable improvement in Delta Airlines' customer focus, the airline has chosen a new definition of the term. As reported by three FlyersRights members, Delta imposed new rules on their frequent flier program that have left our members fuming.

Frequent flier programs are designed to build customer loyalty by rewarding those who spend the most money with the airline. However, we know that most airlines will push the envelope as far as they can when it comes to truly valuing our business.

Effective August 15, Delta's frequent fliers face a 72-hour barrier to changing or cancelling "award" tickets. Travelers needing to change tickets for any reason will simply lose the miles they spent on the trip. Moreover, confirmed upgrades secured through frequent flier miles will cause mileage loss if the upgrade cannot be confirmed on a changed flight.

FlyersRights member Jason K summed it up perfectly when he said:

So we get hit with the change fee to rebook the ticket, lose the upgrade, and they don't refund the miles we used to confirm the upgrade in advance on the original ticket.
Delta has also made the ruling retroactive, so even tickets booked before August 15th are subject to the new policy.

American also displayed an interesting new definition of the term. A traveler bought, through, a first-class, round-trip ticket from Hong Kong to New York on Cathay Pacific. The customer, an active blogger known as The Points Guy, was amazed to learn that American insisted that he had purchased a coach ticket.

Notified of the error, American offered some re-routing options that The Point Guy found unacceptable, all the while holding onto his $3,700. When he pushed them for recompense, he received no response via phone or e-mail. Logging into his AA account, he was amazed to discover that the ticket was cancelled. As he observed, AA apparently doesn't charge itself cancellation fees, and provides that "service" to its customers free of charge when it suits its purposes.

Customer focus?
Tarmac Delays Up-No DOT Action

USA Today reported that 14 flights spent more than three hours on the tarmac in June, compared to only three in June of 2010. This marks the second month in a row of double-digit extended delays. While the TSA says it issued a couple of warning letters, no fines have been levied to date.

"A rule without teeth is meaningless," says Hanni, executive director of "If (the department) doesn't impose fines, tarmac delays will continue to increase. Airlines are going to push the envelope because they're not scared."

Kate had a great interview with WWL's Garland Robinette last week. She discussed this issue at length, explained the pending DOT rules, and answered call-in questions from listeners. Her wide-ranging comments on everything from baggage fees to tarmac delays to TSA abuses make this radio interview a primer on the full range of airline passenger rights issues.
Another TSA Pilot Program

A new program began last week at Chicago O'Hare Airport. The Known Crewmember program will allow pilots to bypass the TSA strip and grope lines. As we've pointed out many times, pilots are subject to rigorous background checks, and fly the trip in the seats with the aircraft's controls, , so frisking them is just plain silly.

In belated recognition of that obvious truth, TSA officers will now positively identify the identity and employment status of flight crew members and deem that "good enough." At this time, the program is limited to pilots, but the Airline Pilots Association urges the TSA to include flight attendants in the future. FlyersRights supports that suggestion.

"The War Is Not Over"
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