Airlines’ motto: Squeeze now, apologize later

Who’s getting squeezed?  Of course we all are.  with additional costs for everything, including seat assignments, baggage, and (Heaven help you) change fees, airlines are making money again, on our backs.  One might think there would be an easier way to do this, like simply increasing fees, but for whatever reasons, it’s not the case.  Southwest has always been on the forefront of charging for this or for that.  It’s latest adventure into charging people who seem too large seems to have gone awry, thanks to the light shown on this policy by Hollywood director Kevin Smith. A spokesman told CNN, “We want to assure everyone that has expressed concern over the situation that we will use this experience in our customer service program when training our employees on the correct way to apply the policy.”

This discussion isn’t about the size of individuals, or even Southwest’s policy on large people.  It’s about the fact that they were able to impose a policy, which until this point hasn’t really given them much grief.  And why not?  Many people agree with the policy in principle: you take up more than one seat and you should pay for it.  The problem is, of course, in how the policy was implemented, and this is often the case.  Often the result of poor training, contracting of services, or just underpaid staff, passengers are subjected to policy fabrications.  A classic case that we have suffered is whether our FAA-certified car seat can go on board a passenger plane.  What often happens is that it is allowed in one direction, and then we have to argue for it to be allowed in the return direction.  Worse was when we were in Newark Airport and were told by a staff member that we would not be allowed to rebook our flight when a security incident occurred, even though Continental Airlines had stated on its web site that we could.

And so what do the airlines do after such events?  They apologize.  They ask for our forgiveness.  I would gladly give them that forgiveness, were it not for the fact that forgiving often doesn’t go both ways.  If I need to make a change to my flight will they forgive me?  If my daughter is ill and we need to reschedule our trip, will they forgive me?  Of course not.

The underlying problem is that individual consumers have very little buying power.  Even large corporations get very little say in how airlines treat them.  With market entry costs in the tens of billions of dollars for an airline, consumer protection laws are needed to keep airlines honest.  Kevin Smith should be compensated for the poor service he received.  So should people who are less visible, who are not Hollywood directors.  America really needs the same sort of protections that the European Commission implemented in 2005.

Airlines may argue that such regulation hampers their ability to offer tailored services, or that it is simply too costly.  It’s difficult to quantify the impact of such legislation as well, because airlines airline statistics in Europe are not easily available.  Still there is a moral need to address the problem.  Agree?  Disagree?

Should Congress pass a Passengers' Bill of Rights to curb airline abuse?

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