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Do you know your rights when you fly? Founder of Airfarewatchdog.com and Frommers.com contributor George Hobica joins host David Lytle to talk about current events and issues in air travel, such as the recent wave of hours-long strandings in grounded planes. Along with sharing inside tips about the airline industry, Hobica reveals how passengers can inform themselves about the rights they already have and how they can support legislation to expand them.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Push for Legislation: Write your congressman to push for a passenger bill of rights.
  • Contracts of Carriage: Know your rights as a passenger, check your contracts of carriage.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel Podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
Announcer: This Podcast is sponsored by VisitBritain. "Be a Brit different" on your next vacation. Find out how on VisitBritain.com/US.
David Lytle: Hi. This is David Lytle. I'm the editorial director for Frommers.com. Today we're talking with George Hobica of Airfare Watchdog. He's a regular contributor to our Frommers.com newsletter. He creates the weekly airfare deals that we publish. Hi George. How's it going?
George Hobica: Hey David, good to be back with you.
David: Yeah, absolutely. Today we're going to talk about current events that's on everyone's mind. We're going to be talking about the Passenger Bill of Rights for air travelers. Just to remind listeners, just recent events as recently as last week, on Valentine's Day in New York City there was a snow and ice storm. And JetBlue planes, as opposed to canceling their flights, they tried to get some of them out. And then it really was the perfect storm because even the equipment for these planes that could be used to tow the planes back in literally froze to the tarmac, creating a horrible situation where passengers were stuck on the plane for upwards of 11 hours. And back in December we had another plane that was stranded for about the same amount of time in Austin.


As far back as 1999 Northwest had a debacle where they actually ended up paying $7, 000, 000 in a lawsuit that they settled with about 7000 passengers because they were stuck in a different airport for upwards of 11 hours as well. So all of this has raised hackles of passengers. What exactly can people do when they're faced with these situations? George, what would you say about that?
George: Well first of all, I'm a very rabid opponent of more regulation. I think that we need it. The time has come. The time has actually long past. Back before airlines were basically deregulated we had something called the Civil Aeronautics Board, in the sense of a government, quasi government agency. They kind of made the airlines toe the line in many respects. They also set fares and stuff like that. I'm not suggesting that we go back to the government setting fares at all, but I think we need some regulation. The time has definitely come.
David: Right. I agree with you. I think that the government should play a role, especially in consumer rights. Too often it's left up to the idea that in a capitalist system that business will always make the best decision, and that doesn't always happen. And I think the airlines are a perfect example of a very large business that is a large part of government subsidized, yet for lack of a better term, they screw over their customer.
George: Right, and they screw over customers, not just in sticking them on airplanes for ungodly lengths of time, but also in the little everyday insults that they impose on passengers. I'll give you a couple of examples before I get back to the actually stuck on the airplane scenario.
David: Sure.
George: Somebody wrote me. She had bought a non-refundable ticket, and was soon after diagnosed with breast cancer. So the woman cannot travel. She's having chemo. She's having radiation. So she bought the non-refundable ticket and the airline says, "Well you bought it in April. Your date of travel was October. You were diagnosed in September so we'll give you a year from April to use your ticket. Then we're going to charge you $100 to change it, by the way."
David: Right.
George: Of course she's not going to be able to travel. There should be some regulation that says if you have a bona fide life-threatening injury like that and you've bought a non-refundable ticket, you should be able to return it and get a refund. I don't care what the airlines say. It's just unfair. Another example, couples leaving from Peoria, Illinois to Kona, Hawaii, and they're going on Northwest from Peoria to Chicago and then Chicago to Honolulu and Honolulu to Kona all in one day. Suddenly Northwest scratches from its permanent schedule the early morning flight to Chicago. They can no longer get to Kona in one day. They're going to have to overnight somewhere at great expense, last minute sort of thing.


Now the airline says, "OK. We'll give you your money back or you can go buy a last minute, very expensive ticket on our competitor United to get you there in one day. Or you can overnight in Honolulu or overnight in Chicago. It's up to you. Good luck."
David: Right.
George: That's not fair. Northwest should say, "OK. We're going to book you on United at our expense." It is just not fair what they're doing. So I think we need some rules here. And unfortunately the airline industry has lobbyists like every other industry and Congress has been kind of weak ruled on this. I think the time has come for Congress to step up to the plate and just have some sensible regulations.


Another example is the denied boarding compensation. It's been stuck at between $200 and $400 for the last decade. And if only adjusted for inflation it should have gone up to $1000. But interestingly, and we'll get to this later, but the Bill of Rights that JetBlue has just announced on its web site and on its Podcast is paying $1000 for denied boarding. What's interesting though, is JetBlue never overbooks. So it's kind of a call of primers, they're not going to have to pay out, the only airline that doesn't overbook.
David: Let's talk about how JetBlue responded. The CEO issued a public apology. An email was sent around to anybody who's ever flown JetBlue that has given them their email address. There's also a video of the apology on JetBlue's web site, and then they posted their Passenger Bill of Rights. In one sense I thought that was pretty amazing that a company, for having such a horrible week, sort of faced up to what they did and did the mea culpa and then tried to offer a resolution. Do you think they've done enough?
George: I think JetBlue responded to this magnificently. I think they did everything right. They said all the right things. They didn't say, "Well it was the weather." If you read their statement, they didn't try to pass it off on the weather and the weather was the problem,
David: Right.
George: a part of the problem obviously. I think David Neeleman just handled this beautifully. I think he really said the right things. Now I think I mentioned in the newsletter that we do that I actually sat next to David Neeleman on a flight. He travels with passengers sometimes and sits down and talks to them, and he's a funny guy. He really, really is. I don't know if this is well known or if it's pertinent, but he has been diagnosed with ADD and so that works to run an airline, but I was sitting next to him,
David: Right.
George: and I made some small comment about how JetBlue could perhaps be better, because I'm a travel writer. I've flown since I was two on a lot of airlines. And as soon as I made this little comment he blanked out, and he got up and he sat next to another JetBlue employee and watched some football game on DIRECTV, which I love on JetBlue.
David: Really, huh?
George: Yeah, I love Jet Blue. I think it's a great airline. I fly them whenever I can. I'll forgive them. I think we hold them to a higher standard because they came into the business trying to change the business and trying to make it more humane and I think they've done that.


David: Yeah. I think that's one of the words that he mentioned in his apology was the humane aspect of what happened. In the sense of them being trapped on a plane was inhumane and that's something that they set out to solve and they found themselves in that same situation as other airlines.


In fact Elayne Boosler on The Huffington Post has a sort of satirical, tongue in cheek, blog post that calls for Jet Blue to be elected president of the United States.


George: [laughs]
David: Just because of how they were honest in their response to this as opposed to, like you said, blaming the weather or passing the buck.
George: Yeah, it was absolutely the classic P.R. way to handle a situation like this. Hats off to their P.R. agency, or their internal P.R., whoever wrote his speech. Or maybe he wrote it himself. He did the right thing. But I still think we need some regulation. It's funny, the business travel coalition came out against this. They're kind of a consumer advocacy group for business travelers. They came out against any kind of regulation and their fear was airfares will go up. Well maybe they will.


Because when you bring a flight back to the gate, you start incurring all kinds of expenses. The limits on the crew work schedule are imposed and you have to scrap flights and you have to compensate passengers and you have to put them on other airlines sometimes.


But so maybe they'll go up a dollar, I don't know, fifty cents fares will go up. But I want to see the president of the business travelers coalition get stuck on one of those planes and then see what he says.
David: Yeah, absolutely. I know last week I was contacted by MSNBC. The talking head gig didn't go through because they changed the bit, but Joe Scarborough was stuck on one of these planes and he wanted to talk to somebody about this.


Apparently he's pretty much a conservative republican. He's considering supporting the idea of a passenger bill of rights. So if you have somebody from that political end of the spectrum interested in regulation in some way, this could be something that has a snowball effect.


What do you suggest that people do? Specifically, who should they contact? What are the means to get a passenger bill of rights passed?
George: I think it would be very effective for consumers to write to their congressman, or email them or call them and say we want a passenger bill of rights of some sort. I'm not suggesting, by the way, that we do anything draconian, just a few protections for passengers.


There's a consumer group that has a website and they have a long laundry list of things they want done. I think it's a little bit excessive. Things like baggage, if baggage is delayed or lost, then the airline will have to replace the value of the entire contents even if it's delayed.


OK, sure, you're on a cruise and your luggage doesn't show up and you're in your shorts and t-shirt for the entire cruise, that's not fair. But I really think that we need some sensible regulation. If you miss the sailing of a thousand dollar cruise because you were denied boarding and they give you two hundred dollars and the ship leaves without you, somebody has to pay for that.


Because denied boarding is simply an airline mistake. It's not because of weather, it's not because of mechanical problems. It's because the airline was getting a bit greedy and they over booked. In situations like that where it's clear cut, I think the airline needs to pay and I think we need regulation to force them to pay. I think the best way consumers can make that happen is to call their congressmen and senators.
David: I came across a, and maybe this is the group your talking about, I came across a blog a couple of days ago called the coalition for an airline passengers bill of rights.
George: Yes, that's the one.
David: Yeah, you can find it online at strandedpassengers.blogspot.com. They have a petition online, currently that have about 10, 000 signatures, I think, looking for support for passengers bill of rights. I know a couple of members of congress have discussed introducing it, but I haven't seen a bill that's been drafted yet. Aren't there some safety nets in place right now, like what about rule 240, how does that work to protect passengers?
George: Back in the day of the civil aeronautics board there was a bunch of rules. There was a rule 100 and 120 and 140 and a lot of these were just common sense protections.


For example, lets day you were about to go on an important business trip and your flight was canceled and there was no reason for you to do this trip anymore, yet you had bought a non-refundable ticket. But what should the airline do? Of course they should give you your money back. So it's kind of common sense stuff.


Rule 240 stated that if an airline couldn't get you to where you were going for a number of reasons, mostly within the control of the airline, then they were obligated by law to put you on a competitor's flight if that flight got you there earlier.


So lets say there was a two hour delay on Northwest and Continental had a flight leaving in the next 20 minutes, they were required to put you on that Continental flight. Now if only first class was available, then they had to put you in first class.


I've actually used that myself. I was coming from, I think Anguilla, back to New York via San Juan and my incoming flight was late on American and there was a Continental non-stop that was going to live in about 15 minutes. I missed my connection on American because of the late flight.


I said what about Rule 240 and they actually said to me sorry there's only first class available. I said well you're obligated by your contract of parish to put me in that last first class seat, and they did. That's the only time I've ever used it, but it really saved me from spending the night in San Juan at my own expense.
David: Were they surprised that you knew to invoke it?
George: I spoke to the agent and she said no. I said I want to speak to a supervisor and the supervisor said oh yeah, Rule 240. The problem is that Rule 240 is on its final legs, its last sad vestiges because a lot of airlines eliminated it from their contract.


Northwest is one of the few that actually still kind of has it. Continental and Delta, some of the other major airlines have sort of a form of 240. You have to go to the contracts of carriage. And actually on airfare watchdog we have links to all the airlines contracts of carriage if you look on our site. It's interesting to read them.
David: I think that's something that I don't know if most air travelers are aware of. When they're buying a plane ticket, in a sense, they're agreeing to a contract. Because there are rights on both sides of that contract of carriage for passengers and airlines. What one or the other is supposed to do.
George: That's right. It's a two way contract. What's interesting is that every month the airlines kind of whittle away and tweak these contracts. I think some of even the major old line carriers like American, United, Delta, etc have changed them and they're constantly tweaking them.


I noticed on Northwest's contract recently, you know that airfare watchdog we track these fat finger fairs the mistake typo fares. I noticed on Northwest's contract they now have a statement saying that if we make a typo fare we are not obligated to honor it, which is very interesting.
David: Yeah that's interesting. Because if you go into a brick and mortar store and there is a price tag on something, I don't know a store that would not honor that price tag that is on a product.
George: Absolutely. Yeah. If you buy a TV at Best Buy and it goes down the next day by $200.00, chances are, you can walk back to the Best Buy and say, "OK, I want a refund, or I am going to return the TV and I'll buy it again for $800.00."


And airline tickets are like that. Some airlines will give you your money back in the form of a voucher good for future travel up to a year, and other airlines will charge $100.00 from what they return to you. U.S. Airways, for example, will give you the entire amount back. Southwest, Jet Blue, other airlines will give you the entire amount back. Continental, Delta, and American will take out $100, $50-$100 from what they owe you, often wiping out the savings. But what other industry would get away with that?
David: Right, what exactly is costing them $100?
George: Yeah, nothing. Nothing. It's just a profit set-up for them. It might cost them, I'm guessing, $10. What do they pay their agents to fix it?
David: Right, exactly.
George: What do they pay, like eight dollars an hour, ten dollars an hour?
David: It's the whole idea behind a voucher system, is that they basically get the hold on to your money. It's like gift cards at Christmas-time. It's become a billion dollar industry. People go into Best Buy or Banana Republic or any sort of place and buy a gift card, because then the person who receives the gift card can get whatever they want. But less than 50% of gift cards are actually used.
George: Right, exactly.
David: So what you're doing is you're just giving free money to a company. They don't have to turn any product over for that cash, other than a little plastic card that probably cost them a fraction of a cent.
George: Sure. So I think its also instructive, David, to look at what the Europeans have done on airline regulation. A few years ago, the EEC passed a pretty comprehensive set of regulations governing airline misbehavior, things like lost luggage, denied boarding, and delayed flights. It's kind of a model what we probably should do in the U.S. And the problem is, of course, that as with anything, there are all kinds of loopholes and exclusions.


So the airlines look for things that are totally out of their control, and maybe that's the way it should be. In fact, I think we can't really, if there's a terrorist incident why should the airlines be responsible for that? Or hurricanes, or tornadoes, or stuff like that. European regulations do have some teeth in them, and I think it's a good place to start. For example, if you're stranded because of an airline malfeasance, they're required to put you in a hotel, and lost baggage and denied boarding compensation is much higher than it is here in the United States.
David: Right. In one sense, I think there's an inherent risk anytime you buy a plane ticket, especially if you buy like a low-cost fare that is not refundable. You pray to God that nothing is going to happen between now and then that will prevent you from using that ticket.
George: Sure. I think we have an example in our Frommer's newsletter about this hapless couple who were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. They were on their way to the Washington Dulles airport and there was a huge traffic jam as a ten-wheeler had overturned. They arrive with Air France ticket counter 60 minutes before the flight.


Air France said, "Sorry, you can pretty much rip up that ticket. You are late. There are plenty of seats on the next flight to Paris tonight but your ticket will not get you one of those seats, and we're not going to give you your money back. Your ticket is worthless. You have a discount ticket. Sorry." Not really sorry, but they were so rude. And eventually we got them at least the refund on their ticket, but they forfeited their entire vacation because the replacement ticket was going to cost $2500.00 to get them a last minute coach seat.
David: Right. I think sometimes it's just sunlight on these incidents make companies behave properly.
George: Right, you know, it's funny. I see that Conde Nast Travel has an excellent column called Ombudsman, where they stand up for people. But you know that the people who didn't write Ombudsman aren't getting that kind of treatment.


It's the ones who actually can get it in print, who are getting any kind of compensation. For every one of those, there are probably a thousand incidences where the consumer has not gotten satisfaction and I think it's kind of disingenuous for the magazines to present these solutions as universal, because they're not. It's just a squeaky wheel that has gotten some money back.
David: Well, there's power behind calling up and saying, "Hi. I'm calling from travel and leisure. We have a problem with one of our readers and your company."
George: Right, and we're going to make you look bad.
David: Right, exactly. Of course, they're going to bend over backwards. I know that's a shame. So really, I think what we're advocating is that people do write to their Congressperson and suggest that they look into seriously drafting a passenger bill of rights to protect air travelers as consumers who are buying a product from a company.
George: Exactly, because it might be you, if you're a consumer, who is the next person stuck in that plane for eight hours with no medicine and no toilets and no food. Or it might be you who has to pay an overnight in a hotel because your airline decided that they didn't want to fly that route anymore.Or it might be you who suddenly have a life-threatening illness that causes you to not be able to fly during the...
David: Right. We can't be protected from all unforeseen circumstances but there's no reason why they, as Jet Blue says, these situations can't be treated fairly and humanely.
George: Yeah, right. I think Jet Blue is definitely going to shame the industry into some kind of action. The question is rather, how long that Jet Blue will stick to this policy and will other airlines follow.
David: Right, that will be interesting to see. I think their customers tend to, they do hold them to a higher standard.
George: Oh absolutely yeah, because they're a great airline. I live here in New York City, and they're really the only way to fly. They fly non-stop, they have TVs, they have nice crew, they have better snacks. They have more leg room, by the way, that's very important.
David: Right, I was flying out to New York last summer from San Francisco, well from Oakland but they're starting on the San Francisco route in May. And storms over New York prevented us from landing, so they rerouted us to Albany and this was on Jet Blue. And since we were in Albany for several hours, the crew got off and we all had to get off. They brought the drinks cart off the plane. They ordered pizzas for all the passengers and had them delivered.


We were watching all these other passengers, whose flights were delayed, trying to get down to New York or any way they just couldn't fly over, who were just green with envy, staring at us, having pizzas delivered to us. And it is. It's that sort of approach to, well it's not really my fault that there's a storm over New York. And it's not even Jet Blue's fault there's a storm over New York. But they did something to make that situation a little better.
George: Sure, yeah. I think they're model for the industry and I wish them well.
David: Yeah, OK.
George: I don't think Jet Blue thinks we need regulation, government regulation. I think that the airlines want to handle themselves but I think...
David: Oh sure, I don't think any business wants to be told what to do. But one company can do it right and ten can do it wrong and it's those ten that make it bad for everybody.
George: Exactly.
David: OK, but George I want to thank you for talking today.
George: Great. It's been a pleasure as always.
David: As always. And I want to remind our listeners and readers to check out our newsletter every Wednesday when you post the new airfares deal column.
George: Right, the good, the bad, the ugly.
David: Yeah exactly, thanks a lot George.
George: Take care.
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