During President Carter’s term, the airline industry in the United States was deregulated by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. This began a pattern of airline deregulation that continues to this day. The idea was to allow free market competition by removing any restrictions on routes that airlines could serve and allow new companies to enter the marketplace. In contemporary times, President Trump recently said he want to deregulate airlines even further.
Deregulation benefited consumers by slashing the price of fares, especially on popular routes. However, airline deregulation also severely reduced customer service and significantly reduces salaries for flight and ground crews. The question now becomes, has deregulation gone too far? Some senators think so.
The trigger for renewed interest in legislation to regulate airlines was propelled forward by the incident on United Flight 3411 where a passenger, Dr. Dao, was assaulted by security forces. They broke his nose, hit him so hard he got a concussion, and then he was physically dragged off of the plane. This all happened because he refused to give up his seat so that some airline crew member could take the flight to be at the destination airport in time to be on the crew of another United flight. This incident is one harsh example of a disturbing trend where airlines use excessive force or threats to make passengers give up seats that they paid for, due to overbooking of flights.
After the United Flight 3411 incident, United publicly apologized. The airline paid a large settlement (of an undisclosed amount) to the injured passenger Dr. Dao. United also changed its policy to no longer call security to physically remove non-threatening passengers due to overbooking and instead offer up to $10,000 for those willing to voluntarily give up their seat. These changes are good; however, they may be too late to stop the new regulations because even though this incident was serious it is not the only problem.
The Senate investigation into current airline practices is also targeting the practice of airlines charging excessive fees for baggage, ticket changes, and cancellations. The LA Times reported that airline passengers were charged US$28.5 billion in fees during 2014, up 20% from the previous year and that the airlines are now making record profits.
Customer service for many airlines is horrendous. Customer complaints against airlines are at record levels. Ample legroom has virtually disappeared as airlines are cramming more seats on each plane. Airlines are paying crews and pilots very poorly in order to save money, which makes the crews and pilots overworked and underpaid.
While some of these problems may be due to competitive pressures; many problems are due to airline abuses and greed. The problems are systematic. Because of this, airlines may face serious consumer boycotts and harsh new regulations.
Here are fifteen things we discovered that are the most egregious problems with airlines and air travel.
15. Non-Refundable Fares
If you buy a “non-refundable” ticket at least seven days before a flight and you need to immediately change it, within 24-hours of purchase, under the Department of Transportation (DOT) rules the ticket is still fully refundable. After 24 hours passes from the time of ticket purchase, no refunds are possible of these non-refundable tickets.The tickets may be changeable; however, this is subject to a change fee that ranges from $100 to $500 per ticket.
The U.S. Senate is looking into these change fees to determine if they are excessive, as they certainly seem to be for anyone who has to pay them.
If an airline cancels a flight, then all tickets must be refunded, even the non-refundable ones. Some airlines will give a refund if the flight cancellation is caused by a severe illness of the passenger or a death in the family. The airlines do not have to do this; however, they can be persuaded to do so with enough persistence.
One way to avoid this problem is to buy flight cancellation insurance for $50 to $100 that covers many of the common situations that cause a passenger to need to cancel a flight. Flight cancellation insurance pays a full refund for the ticket if any of these things occur.
14. Breakdowns on the Tarmac
Runner-up, after United, for being the most poorly run airline is American Airlines. The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) fined American Airlines $1.6 million for holding passengers trapped in planes on the tarmac for more than three hours on 27 flights from 2103 to 2015.
Three hours is a very long time to sit trapped in a plane. Usually, the plane is not air-conditioned well or heated properly until it is airborne, which makes the plane’s interior environment extremely uncomfortable. This may even be life-threatening for elderly persons and babies, who can easily suffer from heatstroke.
Over the years, delays on the tarmac have gotten worse, not better. These planes should never have left the gate. Sometimes an unexpected problem is discovered while the plane heads towards the runway for takeoff. However, most of the delays for American Airlines were caused by human errors by the flight or ground crew.
In 2016, United was fined $2.75 million by the DOT for its poor treatment of disabled passengers, when the airline kept them in planes trapped on the tarmac for over three hours.
FAA fines are $27,000 per person for any plane with passengers that is kept on the ground for more than three hours without allowing the passengers to exit the plane. Moreover, the airline must offer food, drinks, and let passengers go to the bathroom during such delays.
13. Canceled Flights
Flights that are canceled due to no fault of the airline, such as a flight cancellation caused by bad weather are subject to different treatment than flights canceled because of something an airline controls, such as lack of sufficient flight crew members.
One issue that is standard across all U.S. domestic air carriers is that the airlines are not responsible for any consequential damages that occur because of any delay due to flight cancellation. If you miss your wedding because of the flight cancellation that is just tough luck and there is no reimbursement of the expenses.
Another standard policy for all airlines is that regardless of the reason for the flight cancellation a full refund of the ticket or the remaining unused portion of the ticket can be requested by the ticket holder. The refund is made using the same method the ticket was paid for.
All other factors for an airlines cancellation policy are based on the airline’s contract for carriage, which differs significantly from airline to airline. Some airlines are more generous than others. This is why it pays to read all the fine print from the airline because airline agents are trained not to offer the benefits unless a passenger specifically requests them. If you do not know what to ask for, you may not get what you are entitled to receive.
12. Crying Babies and Screaming Toddlers
Babies that cry and young children out of control are not really an airline’s fault; however, they are the number one reason why people are miserable on a flight. Some airlines, such as Malaysia Airlines, have restrictions for babies and children on all flights. On Malaysia flights, babies cannot be in first-class and children under twelve are not allowed on the upper deck of the A380 planes. Other airlines now offer seats in no-child zones for premium prices. These are great if passengers want to be certain to be seated in an area with no crying babies or screaming children.
It is not the babies fault that they scream either because they experience pain in their ears from the changing air pressure as the planes takes off or lands. With that kind of ear pain, you would probably scream and cry too.
Parents who travel with babies do so usually because they have to, like going home to attend a funeral, not because they really want to. Also, the disruptions are not usually the result of bad parenting, though they can be if the child is spoiled. Most of the time, the parents feel frustrated and inadequate when they are not able to console their children and also guilty because they know the sound is disturbing to other passengers.
11. Pet Deaths During Air Transportation
This is a very sad topic and United Airlines should be ashamed of itself for having the worst record of pet deaths of all airlines. United was once again recently in the news and this time because of the death of a giant rabbit while it was in transit on a United flight. The UK woman who was transporting the rabbit, and who went along on the flight, is a professional breeder. She was taking the giant rabbit to a client who purchased it as a pet. The rabbit was in excellent health when it was put in the cage for transport and was examined by a veterinarian right before the trip. It died on the way to the destination in the USA.
The way some airlines treat pets during transport is horrendous. Ground crews leave the cages out in the hot sun. Water for the animal is not provided and any water that was in the transport carrier has spilled due to the rough handling. The cages may be stacked three or four high, in piles that do not allow proper air circulation. Flight delays can easily cause some deaths of the pets.
10. Forced To Sit Separately From Your Young Child
Just because you buy a seat, reserve your seats in advance, pick seats that are together, does not necessarily mean a family with children will end up all together in the same spot on a flight. Because of the problem with overbooking, some passengers are chosen to be bumped off of flights. This may cause a shifting in the seating arrangements. If your family arrives a little late to the airport, your seats may be given away to others. After that, if you do get seats on an overbooked flight they may not be together. Other flights that are canceled and delayed also can cause these problems as airlines try to cram as many people on the subsequent flights as possible.
For most parents, this is a huge problem. They do not want their children to be seated far away from them and to be sitting next to strangers. It is frightening for the child and worrisome for the parents. Some parents resort to begging other passengers to trade seats with them after they are already boarded. There is no requirement for people to cooperate with trading seats and fight attendants can be rather abrupt in telling everyone to take their seats to get ready for takeoff.
One way to improve this situation is to pay for special seats in advance that sell for a premium price. Be very careful not to book seats in an exit row because anyone under the age of 18 years old cannot sit there. These exit row seats sometimes sell for premium prices due to the added leg room that they have. If a parent makes a mistake and reserves seats in an exit row; the children will be forced to sit elsewhere. This can easily cause everybody in the family that is traveling together to be seated separately. There is no point debating FAA rules with the flight attendants because they will call security to force you off the plane.
One family that had paid for four seats got into trouble because one of the seats was reserved in the name of an 18-year-old son who went home from the family trip to Hawaii one day earlier. The father mistakenly thought he could use the seat for his less than 2-year-old toddler; however, the airline refused to allow him to do that. The toddler was supposed to sit on the lap of one of the parents. When the father objected to not being able to use a seat that he bought for his family, the airline staff threatened him with jail and said that his kids would end up in foster care. The airline staff forced the entire family of four (parents with two toddlers) off the plane, causing them to spend an extra $2,000 to get a hotel room and take another flight home the next day. What airline was this? Delta. Delta is another terrible airline to add to your “don’t let these airlines ruin your trip” list.
9. No Legroom
Airplane seats are getting smaller and airlines are putting more of them on planes to maximize the number of tickets that can be sold for a flight. Big and tall people have always had a problem with this. Now the problem is getting worse. The trouble with this strategy is that while seats are getting smaller, Americans, in general, are getting larger, much larger. There is an epidemic of obesity in the USA. The average body size of Americans decades ago was much less than it is today. Some people are so big that it is impossible for them to fit in the seats.
Sitting comfortably on an airplane is no longer possible for many Americans. It gets worse if the person in front of you decides to recline their chair back. On many planes, there is not enough room to use a laptop and the tray table is not big enough to completely hold the food tray.
One of the solutions is to fly business class; however the cost is up to four times more than economy class and many cannot afford these prices. Another strategy is to arrive as early as possible to the gate and try to get an emergency exit row seat by begging the gate crew for it. Offering to pay for an upgrade helps as well.
8. Poor Maintenance
One airline was recently fined $435,000 by the FAA for flying a plane in a condition that was not airworthy. The plane in question had a repair made to the fuel pump switch. This type of repair requires an official inspection by a qualified mechanic to see if the repair was done properly and the equipment works as expected. In this case, the airline made the repair but failed to make the inspection as required by FAA rules.
The FAA tracks aircraft maintenance and noticed the repair had not been officially inspected. The FAA informed the airline and in spite of this, the airline flew the plane two more times without an inspection. The plane flew a total of 23 flights in a potentially dangerous condition.
Guess which airline did this? It was United, of course. One would think United has enough troubles with all the recent PR nightmares they created for themselves. There is no excuse for such sloppy maintenance and illegal violations of FAA safety rules.
Airlines have been trying to cut corners on maintenance to save money. Planes are routinely taken to countries outside the USA, such as Mexico and El Salvador, to do repairs for lower maintenance costs. There is nothing illegal about this practice; however, there are concerns about the quality of the work being done in these countries where the workers may be low-skilled and low-paid.
7. Overworked Underpaid Flight Crews
Since airline deregulation in the 1970s, the wages for airline staff, ground crew, pilots, co-pilots, and flight attendants have all been decreasing significantly. Entry level pay for flight attendants is close to minimum wage. Clearly being a flight attendant is much more difficult than being a worker in a fast food restaurant but the pay is about the same for both workers.
Pilots have seen their salaries essentially cut in half from what they were about a decade ago. These lower salaries are not attracting enough qualified job applicants, which creates a serious problem for the airlines that need crews and pilots. This problem is more severe for low-cost/no-frills regional airlines that pay the lowest salaries for pilots in the industry.
Flight attendants are only paid for “airtime,” which is the flying time for a flight after the doors are closed. If they arrive at the airport for a work-scheduled flight and the flight is delayed, they do not get any pay for the time they wait at the airport for the plane to be ready. This means they may work 12 hours or more and only receive pay for perhaps half those hours.
Not only is there a problem with low-pay, the working conditions are very bad. Many of the airline workers are sleep-deprived because of the long schedules and rapid turn-around. The FAA created regulations to force airlines to allow crew sufficient time between flights to recuperate. Regardless of this, the flight attendants are seriously tired most of the time, underpaid, and overworked. This causes them to make more mistakes than a rested person might make.
6. Personal Data Breaches
It is a disaster to go on a trip and come back home to find out your identity was stolen. While you are on vacation, you may be less diligent about checking your credit card statements and credit card companies are more likely to approve transactions knowing that you are in a period of heavier than normal spending in a different location. This creates a vulnerability for fraudulent transactions placed by those with your credit card information.
Many airlines suffered serious data breaches that caused them to lose the personal information of million of customers to criminal hackers.
Here is a list of five of the most serious data breaches and the year they occurred, where all personal information held by these airlines was compromised, including names, contact information, and banking/credit card information:
1) 2016 Asiana;
2) 2016 Delta;
3) 2016 Japan Airlines;
4) 2016 Northwest, and;
5) 2015 United.
A group of criminal cyber hackers calling themselves “Babylon APT,” offered a list of airline IT system vulnerabilities for sale on the “darknet” run by Chinese state-sponsored hackers, which is where many illegal transactions of this type take place. The Babylon APT group offered to sell vulnerabilities that it discovered, which would allow other hackers to penetrate the IT systems of Delta Air Lines, Japan Airlines, United Airlines, and many others. With these vulnerabilities, hackers can gain control over an airline’s IT system in order to steal all the personal information from the databases of an airline’s customers. This problem is ongoing and increasing.
5. Extreme Weather
Extreme weather can cause problems with flights across the United States, even in areas where the weather is good. This happens because the major airlines all work from a hub airport that is in a city where most of the connecting flights are made for a specific airline. If the hub city happens to be in an area hit by severe weather, then all the planes from that airline will suffer delays.
Planes will be slower to get permission to land at the hub airport in bad weather or the hub airport may close temporarily due to the weather. All the crews and the planes that cannot process through the hub airport properly will delay everything that they were going to do after a particular flight. This causes a domino effect of escalating problems.
Airlines are not responsible for bad weather, however, they usually do not warn their passengers of bad weather that is affecting other parts of the country experiencing good weather. It is important to check the routing of your flight if it makes a stop to be sure you are not being routed through a hub airport that is experiencing bad weather. Change your flight routing if possible to avoid the weather.
4. Flight Delays
Just like flight cancellations, the responsibilities of the airlines differ in terms of what they must do and are determined by each individual airline’s “contract of carriage.” To learn the details, download a copy of this official agreement from the airline’s website.
If you are at the gate when the flight is delayed and if the delay is serious (over four hours) it is important to know that you may get additional help if you wait until after all the furor has subsided and the upset passengers of a delayed flight stop bothering the gate crew. If you are part of the crowd that rushes the counter of the gate crew, after the announcement of the flight delay; you may not get any special help. However, if you wait a bit and then approach the gate crew calmly and nicely, you may find that they are able to book you on another flight. that may be with another carrier. This can be helpful if only your airline has delayed flights but the other airlines are running properly.
The airlines do not have to do this; however, some do. The reason for this is that in the past, before airline deregulations, there was a provision called “Rule 240.” Under this rule, any carrier that had a seriously delayed or canceled flight was required to book the stranded passengers on the next available flight to the destination even if the flight was with another carrier. This rule is no longer in effect; however, the airlines that existed during the 1970’s still kept their agreements to take passengers from each other if the need arises. Because of this, if you ask nicely, in some cases, it is possible to get switched to another flight with a different airline.
3. IT System Problems
Besides the security breaches, there is the chance of a major IT systems collapse like the one that recently occurred with British Airways (BA). The global IT system for the entire airline crashed. This made it impossible to manage BA flights. This happened on a holiday weekend with many travelers in route to various destinations. All flights were canceled, leaving thousands of passengers stranded especially in the major London airports. Estimates are that 75,000 people were affected. What a great way to ruin everyone’s holiday!
To make matters worse, when some of the passengers were finally able to take flights; their luggage was lost. People left London on BA flights and when they arrived at their destination, they were informed that their luggage was still in London. The huge number of checked-in bags at the London airports caused such a log jam, it was impossible for the ground crews to properly sort the luggage. It took BA many days to straighten out this mess. BA’s customer service telephone lines were jammed because passengers were not able to use the BA website to report lost baggage.
A BA spokesperson said that the airline had experienced cutbacks in internal IT staffing due to budget constraints and had outsourced much of the IT system maintenance and support work to third parties. Previous employees who had the knowledge to provide the emergency tech support to keep the IT system of BA running were no longer working for the airline. BA plans to hire more internal IT staff and do a complete review of its IT system to try to avoid such a major calamity in the future.
2. Damaged or Lost Luggage
Lost luggage is not only a matter of inconvenience; it can cause a life-threatening problem. Because of the limitation of things (amounts and quantities) that can be carried onto the plane in carry-on luggage, people are packing things in luggage, like vital medicines, that they need for their survival.
Another common problem is luggage that arrives damaged and/or the contents are damaged. Airlines have not been doing a good job providing adequate customer service to address these problems. This caused the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to step up and increase government regulations of what airlines must do if luggage is lost or damaged.
The level of compliance with these regulations varies with the different airlines; however, here are the basic rules that all airlines, which are U.S. carriers must follow and things to do to make sure they follow all of the rules:
1) The airline must pay for damaged luggage and damage to contents caused by the airlines (when things were properly packed). Hint: It is a great idea to take photos with your mobile phone of how you packed the contents and the exterior of your luggage to help identify it if it is lost.
2) If your luggage is delayed, report it as lost right away and get a copy of the written report. Make sure to get a customer service phone number so you can follow up to check status.
3) There is a maximum claim allowed per bag, which may not cover the value of the contents. It may be wise to pay for excessive valuation insurance if that is the case before you take the flight.
4) Airlines must pay all reasonable and actual expenses (save your receipts) caused by lost luggage up to a maximum limit of $3,400 for U.S. domestic flights. Airlines try to negotiate this amount to as low as possible. Demand that they follow the law and threaten to make a complaint to the DOT if they do not reimburse your reasonable expenses. If that does not work go ahead and file a formal complaint.
Overbooking of flights by airlines is a common practice and it is not illegal. Airlines use this technique to ensure flights are as close to 100% full as possible. Beating passengers up for not giving up seats that they paid for is not a crime either under certain circumstances. Under the current federal law, if a passenger does not cooperate with any orders given by federal security authorities they can be physically restrained and physically removed from the plane. This is to protect the other passengers and to deal with such things as violence on planes, psychotic behavior, and terrorist attacks. Applying this standard to non-violent passengers is inappropriate and as United found out, excessive violence by security personnel creates a huge liability for the airline.
Under U.S. law, if overbooking occurs some passengers can be denied boarding the flight (also called being “bumped” from the flight). These passengers must be offered some form of compensation, which may be a ticket for a free flight or a cash payment of up to $1,350. Airlines can offer more if they like.
The most serious problems have occurred after the passengers are already on the plane and airline staff asks them to give up their seats. Nobody likes to be forced off of a plane when they paid for a ticket. Besides the United fiasco, and we noted under the section about being seated together with kids, one family traveling with small children was thrown off a plane flying back to the mainland U.S. from Hawaii to make room for other passengers. This does not make sense and it is likely that the U.S. Senate will come up with new federal laws to stop these overbooking problems and abusive airline practices.
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