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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Your government in action: The cancelled flights problem 


Sometimes, the purported "unintended" consequences of government regulation are so obvious it really is not right to call them "unintended." This would be one such example:

Airlines appear now to be canceling more flights rather than risk multi-million dollar fines for keeping passengers stuck on the tarmac for three hours or more.

Of course they are. And since few things harsh my mellow more than a cancelled flight, it annoys the heck out of me.

It is not clear to me why this problem requires a governmental solution at all, the occasional big-publicity screwup notwithstanding. This would seem like an area where airlines can and should compete by offering different policies if indeed there is demand. One airline might say "we will make every effort to get you where you are going, even if that means keeping you on the tarmac for hours," and another might say "we know you would prefer to hang out in the terminal than sit in a coach seat for more than a few hours, so we will cancel flights rather than run the risk that you will be trapped on a grounded plane." If the government intervenes at all, it should be to require that an airline disclose its policy under such circumstances so that would-be passengers can take it in to account when making their own plans. Pick the airline that raises the probability of getting you there eventually even at the cost of discomfort, or the opposite. What possible argument could there be for the government to make the choice for us?

20 Comments:

By Anonymous vikingTX, at Sat Jul 10, 12:11:00 PM:

After 25 years in the airline industry, I still find it incredulous that people think the airlines want to inconvenience passengers in these incidents. As if pissing off your customers is considered good business practice. Most delays come from external circumstances, mostly out of the control of a single airline. The main variable is weather, which has serious ramifications to on time performance, particularly when ATC shuts down arrival and departure corridors and sets up delay programs.
The dirty secret is that many airports (particularly in the northeast) are scheduled at full clear day (VFR) capacity every day. When the weather isn't clear with light winds, the system breaks down. The operations departments are actually quite amazing in their capacity to coordinate with ATC, consolidate flights, and keep the traffic moving. Unfortunately, when something finally glitches the news gets widespread coverage because it sells media.
The airline industry is already one of the most regulated and inspected industries in the economy. More regulations just make it harder for them to provide the service their customers want.  

By Blogger Foxfier, formerly Sailorette, at Sat Jul 10, 01:33:00 PM:

It made them look good? (I know, I know, not supposed to answer rhetorical questions....)  

By Blogger Stack Trace, at Sat Jul 10, 02:16:00 PM:

The main issue is that people stuck in an airplane, sitting on tarmac, are no longer in control of their own fate. They are legally prevented from leaving the airplane. In many of these cases, people were forced to remain in airplanes without air conditioning (80F+ temps), with overflowing toilets, and with dozens of other irate, increasingly irrational and angry passengers.

When your rights as a citizen are infringed, then government *does* have a role. Being forced to endure grueling circumstances, beyond your own control, when you are a legitimate paying customer, certainly deserves public scrutiny and possibly regulation.

Setting firm rules that protect people from extremely uncomfortable and possibly even dangerous situations (heat exhaustion and dehydration can be dangerous and even fatal for the very young, the sick, and elderly), which apply equally well to all airlines, is good regulation. The airlines must now compete on how well they can meet those regulations -- it's a level playing field.

Three weeks ago, I was in precisely this situation. I flew to Chicago O'Hare, with my four year old son. Our connecting flight was canceled. I don't like that, and it was a huge inconvenience to me -- I had to rent a car and drive 500 miles to get to my final destination. Should I have traded that for 3 or 4 hours sitting on the tarmac, while the wind conditions at O'Hare cleared up? Should my son have to endure that, and should every other person on that flight have to endure an exhausted, hot, talkative 4-year-old?

No one makes purchasing decisions (when buying plane tickets) based on the average rate of flight cancellations or flight delays. Maybe they should, but that information just is not available. The airline doesn't want to give it to you, and the broker services (Expedia, etc.) don't make it available. Maybe people *should*, but it's just a fact that this is not part of the cost-benefit analysis that 99.9% of people make when they buy a plane ticket. So expecting the market to take care of this is naive.

Overall, I have a lot of sympathy for airlines. They provide an amazing service, at a price that is often reasonable. And they deal with inherently unpredictable circumstances -- traffic flow patterns, weather, etc. I give them a lot of slack for that, much more than most people. But one of the factors that they *can* control is the humane treatment of their customers. When I board a plane, I am putting my safety in their hands, and I am giving up a huge degree of freedom. That's a trust. I am perfectly happy to have government define some basic requirements that airlines must meet, in that situation.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Sat Jul 10, 02:28:00 PM:

I'm too damn mad about overbooking to get riled up about cancelling!

There's usually a good reason to cancel a flight, and it is often unanticipated.

Overbooking occurs with almost every airline (with notable exceptions) and it is tolerated...yeah, even regulated, by the government.

In my book it is unadulterated blantant fraud to sell a customer a ticket when there are not enough seats to accomadate everybody.

This spring, Air Tran (known in the travel community as "Air Strand")overbooked our flight by 10%. That left my wife and I and several other people denied passge at the gate despite having confirmed tickets. "High and Dry" in Atlanta, halway to a cruise dock with a ship that would depart, with us or without us, at 5PM that day.

We made it...at the cost of violating every speed limit in central Florida. It could easily have ruined our whole trip.

We had to argue with the dolts to get reimbursed for the carfare and fraudlulent ticket!!!

...and it's business as usual for most domestic airlines.

So...it really isn't just "bad weather" afflicting companies that would otherwise want to serve their customers well...it is just plain lousy service.  

By Blogger Foxfier, formerly Sailorette, at Sat Jul 10, 02:30:00 PM:

No one makes purchasing decisions (when buying plane tickets) based on the average rate of flight cancellations or flight delays.

...Actually, that's my father in law's entire criteria. My husband chooses those that have enough leg room, then sorts by % of cancellations on that flight, then price. Most anyone who has to get there does this, while folks flying for fun go on how pleasant it is.

If folks are actually at health risk, then you deal with that-- you don't try to regulate the chance out of existence.

JPMcT
I agree that selling something you don't have is better known as "fraud" in less regulated circles....  

By Blogger Gary Rosen, at Sat Jul 10, 04:47:00 PM:

"I agree that selling something you don't have is better known as "fraud" in less regulated circles"

But why does an airline overbook except that people make reservations and then don't show up? It's a two-way street.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jul 10, 05:10:00 PM:

I think airlines should compete by self-regulating their safety procedures. If you want to take the risk of flying on puddle-jumper express, for half the price, and a little bailing wire - or perhaps a co-pilot chosen at random from the passengers - heck, Let them do it.

Why do we need any government regulation of safety at all? What airline wants a big lawsuit? And they can advertise their safety precautions.

Everyone knows the difference between a modern Boeing dreamliner, and a 50 year old MD-80.

Keep life simple and free, I say.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jul 10, 06:23:00 PM:

Tgerhawk, obviously you have never sat on the tarmac for 4-1/2 hours as did once on trip to Chicago to NY that should have taken less than 2 hours. No air, no food (flights under 2 hrs no longer even offer peanuts) and dozens of cranky business people. I thought I was going to crawl out of my skin. Yeah, there ought to be a law; I'd much prefer the airlines cancel my flight and allow me the option to hop on the next trip out of dodge--and on a different airline if need be-- than be held hostage on a runway to nowhere.

But why does an airline overbook except that people make reservations and then don't show up? It's a two-way street.

These days the cost of changing a reservation is $150 plus so the only people who are cancelling reservations are the folks travelling on business on Y class tickets, and hardly the bulk of travellers nowadays. The overbooking makes no sense to me.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jul 10, 06:52:00 PM:

After passengers were stranded for ELEVEN hours on a Jet Blue flight a couple of years back, the airline adopted a promise of how they will treat/compensate you when things go wrong. That goes a long way to bringing some level of comfort to its customers. On most airlines, you are the mercy of the reservationist behind the counter, and most times it ain't a good place to be. On top of that, JetBlue has the best seats/amenities/on board entertainment. No, I don't work for the airline; I just have had too many lousy business trips on its competitors.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Sat Jul 10, 07:28:00 PM:

"But why does an airline overbook except that people make reservations and then don't show up? It's a two-way street."

Well...just like movies and broadway shows....if you buy a ticket and down't show up, you eat it.

Simple solution....unless, like most airlines, they make the "no show" customer pay AND overbook the flight.

I'd rather be held up by a street thug...at least I can call the cops!!!  

By Blogger Foxfier, formerly Sailorette, at Sat Jul 10, 08:52:00 PM:

What JPMcT said.

If I rent a house and don't live in it, no skin off the owner's nose-- I still pay.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Jul 10, 10:02:00 PM:

I hate to disabuse the people that think that I have "obviously" never sat on a tarmac for hours on end. I have. But I'm willing to do that to raise the odds of getting where I am going. Getting somewhere five hours late is a lot better than not getting there until the next day, because in the latter case I definitely miss the purpose of my flight, in the former case I only might miss it.  

By Blogger Stack Trace, at Sun Jul 11, 01:52:00 AM:

But I'm willing to do that to raise the odds of getting where I am going.

None of the comments above have asserted that you have not waited on airplanes. My point is that the waiting -- and its circumstances -- are compulsory. You don't realistically have the option of leaving the plane, or paying some fee to get better service, or (at that point) taking your business to another airline. You're stuck.

...Actually, that's my father in law's entire criteria.

Well, good for him. (Honestly.) If more people used these criteria, then there would be more pressure for airlines to perform well. But he is, by far, the exception, and not the rule.  

By Blogger Foxfier, formerly Sailorette, at Sun Jul 11, 11:50:00 AM:

Stac Trace-
you've got a bit of an accuracy problem. Tigerhawk almost verbatum quoted the exact accusation that he'd never been stuck on a plane, and you claimed that nobody made flight-choices based on chance of cancellation or delay.

Unless you're using "anyone" and "no-one" in the form of "- who agrees with me"? Always popular online.  

By Blogger Stack Trace, at Sun Jul 11, 02:24:00 PM:

When I said "no one", I meant "practically no one". Yes, technically that's "inaccurate". I assumed everyone would understand that I meant practically no one. I felt that was obvious, but obviously you disagree.

About the "exact accusation" -- honestly, I just didn't see anon's "accusation." It's obvious that TH spends quite a lot of time flying. It's inconceivable (to me, obviously not to anon) that anyone would seriously think that TH had *not* waited on the tarmac for a flight. And that slight oversight doesn't affect at all my other comments on the issue of whether or how to regulate this aspect of air travel.

Online forums seem to encourage this level of nitpicking. In face-to-face discussion, this kind of disagreement is quickly cleared up. I don't appreciate the "who agrees with me" snide comment. I don't assume everyone agrees with me, and I don't assume that my opinion is infallible or applies perfectly to everyone in every situation. I made one generalization, which technically yes was inaccurate because I failed to qualify it with "practically" or some such word. I do make an effort to listen, to speak to people with respect, and to speak my mind. I would appreciate it if you would refrain from snide "who agrees with me" comments. TH's blog is, overall, a refreshing break from the rest of the slop on the Internet, and the comments often have a significantly higher signal-to-noise ratio than most blogs. I don't care what is popular online; I would rather keep reading this halfway-decent blog.  

By Blogger Foxfier, formerly Sailorette, at Sun Jul 11, 02:52:00 PM:

Amazingly, I was not being snide. Perhaps you would have a more pleasant experiance online if you didn't presume on folks' motivations when it's quite obvious that you're not on the same wavelength.

I mean it quite literally-- it is all over the place, a form of the "well, nobody who matters," "nobody who is relevant" and "practically nobody." See also, that old line about "how can X have won the election, no-one I know voted for him!"

Other forms include "no one I know" and "I don't really believe anyone does this, no matter what they say."

In face-to-face discussion, this kind of disagreement is quickly cleared up.

Yes, because it takes a quarter of a second in a face to face argument/debate for me to snort and say "Bah, that's not true-- I know several folks who do such and such."

You further claimed that the information is not available, which is flatly, factually wrong. And that's not even bringing in that at least one airline had a major ad campaign based on their on-time arrival rate.

"Online forums seem to encourage this level of nitpicking" because you make claims and they stay there, so people can go "well, that doesn't sound right... let me research it" and then come back and tell you you're wrong.

Face to face, saying something confidently-- or even with high emotion!-- is enough to make people believe you've done the research and are correct.

I do make an effort to listen, to speak to people with respect, and to speak my mind.

You failed to check before trying to tell the blogger that no-one had done what he claimed they had done, you respond in an offended manner when people correct your claims, and you presume offense where none is offered.  

By Blogger Foxfier, formerly Sailorette, at Sun Jul 11, 03:05:00 PM:

If someone finds this convo on google and is trying to find what the flight stats are:

www.expertflyer.com is a paid service with that information and more-- they have a free trial, at the moment.

Flightstats is a free site that lets you search by route, flight, time of day and airline. (they also offer widgets for your site)  

By Blogger Stack Trace, at Sun Jul 11, 04:11:00 PM:

Jesus christ. I tried to be civil, and to admit where I goofed. Now you're just preening and being smug. Whatever, fuck it, I give up. Enjoy your victory of winning a minor technical point on a blog forum, on a tangent off the main topic. Tell all your friends about it.  

By Blogger Foxfier, formerly Sailorette, at Sun Jul 11, 05:15:00 PM:

Accusing me of malicious intent, justifying your prior mistake by saying any other interpretation was nitpicking, implying I am uncivil, dropping the f-bomb like a teenager and implying that, by my response, I am somehow destroying the quality of this blog....

You have very odd notions of what is civil.

Possibly, you're in a bad mood, your blood sugar is low or you're inclined to dislike folks that make you feel bad.
The only possible source I can figure out for your hissy about "preening" and "being smug" the links to useful sites-- here's a news flash, I am being unironic.
Far, far too many times I have tried to find information, get a promising result in the comments of a blog...and nobody every bothers to give actual information I can use.

If I were going to try to be "smug", I would have put in something like "oh! Golly, let us look at google! Type in 'success rate' and 'flight'"-- do some narration of how-long-is-this taking, that kind of BS. Maybe I would have gone looking for how many ads I could find from different companies talking about the chance of you getting there on time. Possibly I would have gone to booking sites to see if they have such a too-- I halfway remember one did, but I'm not sure if it was the airline or the booking site.

If you want to take offense, there is nothing I can do to prevent it.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 12, 08:02:00 AM:

What fresh hell would that be: stuck out on the tarmac in the middle seat between you two.  

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