Protecting the consumer rights of air travellers

This article was published in Today, 25 October 2019.

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/protecting-consumer-rights-air-travellers

Are airlines treating passengers of disrupted flights fairly?

Courtesy Reuters

IF you were travelling on Singapore Airlines (SIA) out of London and your flight is delayed or cancelled, you may be compensated up to €600 according to European Union (EU) regulations. However, if it is an outbound flight from Singapore, what compensation a passenger may receive, if any, will depend on the policy of the airline.

This is because EU regulations do not apply to non-EU carriers arriving at an airport in member countries although it covers all departing flights of both EU and non-EU carriers.

The regulations have recently been extended to include connections even if these are operated outside the EU by non-EU airlines. The ruling states that “an operating air carrier that has performed the first flight cannot take refuge behind a claim that the performance of a subsequent flight operated by another air carrier was imperfect.” It is therefore obliged to offer passengers alternative transport for the disrupted flight, in addition to monetary compensation.

Over in Canada, the Air Passenger Protection Regulations introduced by the Canada Transportation Agency require airlines affected by flight disruptions to meet certain obligations which will apply to all flights to, from and within Canada, including connecting flights. Passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled will be compensated up to C$1,000 depending on the size of the airline and length of the disruption. Non-compliance carries a fine of up to C$25,000.

Countries elsewhere do not generally legislate on mandatory fiduciary compensation of a stipulated amount for flight disruptions. In the United States, airlines are obliged to compensate passengers who are bumped off a flight due to an overbooking situation (as in the EU and Canada), but there are no federal regulations requiring them to do the same thing for passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled.

Consumer rights groups have long been pushing for fairer treatment of travellers under these circumstances. Besides arranging meals and hotel accommodation in the event of a long delay, some airlines hand out in-flight gift vouchers, but most do not make any form of financial payment. In many cases the affected passengers get not much more than an apology while they wait to be put on the next available flight.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recognises the vulnerability of passengers and supports “due attention… (which) could include rerouting, refund, care and/or compensation”, but it stops short of spelling out specifics and making them industry standards. The International Air Transport Association is however concerned that airlines may be adversely affected, advocating “an appropriate balance between protection of consumers and industry competitiveness.”

Affected passengers therefore by and large can only rely on the goodwill of the airlines, whose policies differ across the industry. Many of them have come to realise that to take the matter further on their own – including bringing an airline to court – can be tedious, frustrating and, more often than not, futile. What they need is the support of an authority who can enforce compliance within a legal framework.

Yes, even with mandatory compensation in place in the EU and Canada, there have been complaints that the airlines are not forthcoming in meeting their obligations, citing extraordinary circumstances that do not render them liable or delaying payment indefinitely. Still, in the context of good governance, what the EU and Canada have introduced is a significant step forward in recognition of the uphill challenge passengers face in their battle with the airlines for fair compensation.

Some airport authorities fine airlines for flight delays or operating off-schedule because it disrupts and causes less-than-optimal resource allocation that can be costly to the airport’s operations. By the same argument, passengers of disrupted flights deserve to be fairly compensated. The disruption can be costly in terms of making alternative arrangements, staying in some place longer than planned, and losing opportunities as in failing to make a business deadline. Above all, it causes anguish and distress.

The amounts recommended by the EU and Canada are miniscule compared to the fines of up to US$27,500 per passenger imposed by the US Transportation Department for planes left on the tarmac for more than three hours (or four hours for international flights) without taking off. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines share the honour of holding the record fine of US$1.6 million, the former in 2016 and the latter in 2015.

Non-US airlines that have been penalised by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) include Japan Airlines which was fined US$300,000 for two incidents in 2018 in which passengers were made to wait more than four hours on the tarmac before they could deplane.

All these measures serve the common goal of encouraging airlines to ensure their flights operate as scheduled and hopefully too that they become more conscientious about how they treat their customers. However, the fines imposed by DOT do not directly benefit the passengers who are the very reason why an airline is in business.

An example of how an airline may take the EU regulations seriously is when British Airways, faced with the threat of strike action by its pilots recently, informed its customers as early as two weeks of cancellations of some flights to avoid paying compensation.

However, do not expect similar regulations to be introduced any time soon in other parts of the world. For one thing, consumer rights groups do not appear to be as aggressive, and many countries especially Asia are less prone to industrial action. Besides major Asian carriers known for good customer service are more responsive to feedback and complaints and may already be offering some form of compensation even if they are not as generous.

But as the number rises, there is a greater need to ensure that affected passengers are fairly treated. The powers that be can ensure that. According to aviation data and analytics experts at Cirium, about 3.9 million flights or 10,700 a day were delayed by over 30 minutes or cancelled worldwide in 2018. Take a typical day on 5 August 2019.there were 22,386 delays and 1,107 cancellations globally, of which 29 per cent of the combined total occurred in the United States, 26 per cent in Europe, and 34 per cent in Asia Pacific.

Until then, here’s a poser for SIA and the likes: Will they accord the same level of comnpensation to all passengers even if they are not bound by regulations, for no better reason than simply one in the name of fairness?

Malaysia Airlines: Waiting for the white knight

Courtesy Reuters

IN July, there was much excitement about Qatar Airways’ interest in acquiring Malaysia Airlines (MAS), being one of four proposals received by the ailing flag carrier of Malaysia. It seems that has as quickly dissipated.

According to sources, apparently only one proposal from local investors Jentayu Danaraksha Sdn Bhd (JDSB) is left on the table. The consulting firm is fronted by former MAS chief executive officer Tan Sri Abdul Azia who retired in 1991.

But MAS’ owner Khazanah does not seem to favour JDSB which in 2014 said it was keen to revive the carrier but was snubbed.

There has been ambiguity as to whether MAS prefers a local or foreign investor. But there is now new excitement about the possibility that Japan Airlines (JAL) might be that white knight. Much has been hyped about JAL being a good fit for MAS since it had only not too long ago pulled through a difficult time of near collapse and would therefore know what’s needed to rescue MAS.

JAL has earlier tied up with MAS to operate joint flights between Japan and Malaysia, and it looks like a natural step forward to take on a bigger role. Besides, both airlines belong to the OneWorld Alliance (and so too Qatar Airways).

And while the powers that be at Khazanah are gushing with excitement about that prospect, JAL president Yuji Asaka said it was too early to consider an equity investment in MAS but future discussions were possible.

Extending its reach internationally may be a strategy for JAL in competing with rival All Nippon Airways. So far it has partnered with airlines which include China Eastern Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Garuda Indonesia in commercial agreements. But equity acquisition is so far not on the card. So it may be a long road, so patience may just be what MAS needs right now.

Caution keeps B737 Max jet grounded

Courtesy Getty Images

Carriers which had been hopeful that the Boeing B737 Max jet would return to the skies as early as next month have deferred scheduled dates to operate the aircraft.

Earlier in August, Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenburg was hopeful that this would happen in the fourth quarter of the year and the airlines could look forward to capturing the peak holiday season traffic.

American Airlines which owns 24 of the Max jet is pushing the date to Dec 3. United Airlines with a fleet of 14 is moving it further down the road to Dec 19. It looks like both carriers are still hoping to cash in on what shall remain of the peak season including the Christmas holiday. But Southwest Airlines, the largest of the Max operators worldwide with 34 aircraft has moved the scheduled date to Jan 5 next year.

North of the border, Air Canada (which owns 24 Max jets) and Sunwing (with 4 aircraft) are not expecting the aircraft to be operational until next year. For Air Canada, it is Jan 8. And for Sunwing, even later in May. WestJet (with a fleet of 13 Max jets) too is not scheduling Max flights during the year-end holiday season, but said the company might consider an occasional flight to ease the demand should the ban be lifted then.

WestJet’s vice-president in charge of scheduling said: “It’s a little harder to unmix the cake at that point, but we would look at peak days, the Friday before Christmas (for example) where we can still sell seats and we’ll put the airplane back in.”

Elsewhere across the world, affected carriers remain non-committal on their plans. Other major operators until the jet was grounded include Norwegian Air Shuttle (18 aircraft), China Southern Airlines (16), TUI Group (15), China Eastern Airlines (14), Lion Air (14), FlyDubai (14), Turkish Airlines (12), and XiamenAir (10).

The B737 Max jet was grounded globally following two fatal incidents, one involving Indonesian carrier Lion Air in Oct last year and the other involving Ethiopian Airlines in Mar this year, both crashes claiming a total of 346 lives.

Quite naturally, carriers which own the Max jet are keen to see its early return to the skies. Many of them have cut back capacity to cope with the shortage of aircraft and are reporting losses as a consequence. United which took out 70 flights a day in its September schedule will see the number increased to 90 in December. Together, the three airlines – American, United and Southwest – have cancelled 30,000 flights. Delta Air Lines, however, stands to gain from these airlines’ disadvantage as it does not own any Max aircraft.

Budget carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle which plies the ultra-long haul is said to be on the brink of collapse, and the grounding of the B737 Max jet isn’t helping. According to former CEO Bjorn Kjos, the restriction has cost the airline US$58 million. Norwegian, which took the US by storm with its low fares, raising objection from American carriers, has cancelled numerous flights between Europe and the U.S.

Both the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing have suffered some loss of credibility in the wake of the two crashes. Stories about Boeing’s shoddy work at is plants and allegations of FAA’s relegating its oversight role to the manufacturer had hit hard. FAA’s delayed action to ground the Max jet after a number of authorities across the globe had done so also called into question FAA’s leadership role in the field.

However, FAA may have learnt its lesson. Following meetings between Boeing and various industry players where disagreement on the readiness of the Max jet was apparent, FAA had said, “Our first priority is safety, and we have set no timeframe for when the work will be complete. Each government will make its own decision to return the aircraft to service, based on a thorough safety assessment.”

Europe’s aviation safety watchdog – the European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa) – for one will not rely entirely on a US verdict on whether the Max jet is safe to resume flying. It will instead additionally conduct its own tests on the plane before giving its final approval.

Transport Canada has insisted on the need for essential simulator training in early discussions when Boeing said it was not necessary since the Max jet was a variation of the B737 master model. The authority said it “will not lift the current flight restriction… until it is fully satisfied that all concerns have been addressed by the manufacturer and U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and adequate flight crew procedures and training are in place.”

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, multiple regulatory bodies around the world were not satisfied with Boeing’s briefing on the Max software update. They contended that Boeing “failed to provide technical details and answer specific questions about (the) modifications.” Boeing is expected to resubmit documents providing more details, and that these should be first approved by FAA before a follow-up meeting is convened. This in a way reminds FAA of its oversight role.

While affected airlines are looking forward to normalising their operations with the return of the B737 Max jet, what happens post-ban is another story. In fact, it may present a more difficult problem to handle than the technical aspects of the saga as the carriers try to win back the trust of travellers. If, indeed time is the healer, then taking the time to be absolutely convinced of the jet’s airworthiness before lifting the ban may be a good thing for the airlines.

A matter of fair play: Canada and European Union expand protection of air travellers’ rights

Courtesy LaPresse

Flight delays and cancellations may be said to be part and parcel of air travel given that they are happening more often than not.

Take a typical day as 5 August, 2019: According to Cirium, there were 22,386 delays and 1,107 cancellations globally, of which 29 per cent of the combined total occurred in the United States, 26 per cent in Europe, and 34 per cent in Asia Pacific.

But what recourse do affected travellers have in the event that they are inconvenienced?

While the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recognizes the vulnerability of passengers and supports “due attention… (which) could include rerouting, refund, care and/or compensation”, the agency stops short of spelling out specifically what the entitlements could amount to. Similarly, the International Air Transport Association in voicing support for ICAO’s stand is concerned how the airlines may be adversely affected, seeking “an appropriate balance between protection of consumers and industry competitiveness.”

In the Untied States, for example, there are no federal regulations requiring airlines to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or cancelled, unless they are bumped off a flight due to an overbooking situation. Strictly applied, airlines are not obliged to put you on another airline’s flight.

So too around much of the world, many governments do not legislate on the matter. Different airlines have different policies to handle such situations, but it has always been arguable as to what constitutes fair compensation. And travellers who have been left high and dry are often impotent seeking redress, resigned to the mercy of the airlines.

What air travellers need is an authoritative voice to decide on fair play There is hope however if more regulators will follow in the footsteps of their counterparts in Canada and the European Union which have in recent weeks expanded legislation to protect passengers’ rights.

Canada

The Air Passenger Protection Regulations introduced by the Canada Transportation Agency require airlines affected by flight disruptions to meet certain obligations which will apply to all flights to, from and within Canada, including connecting flights.

Passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled will be compensated up to C$1,000 (US$756) in accordance with the size of the airline and length of the disruption. Large airlines will pay out more than small airlines: C$400 and C$125 respectively for delays between three and six hours, C$700 and C$250 for delays between six and nine hours, and C$500 and C$1,000 for delays nine hours or more.

Non-complying airlines may be fined up to C$25,000 for non-compliance.

The regulations also cover other obligations such as clear communication and updates, reasonable food catering, the need for ventilation if passengers are stuck on the tarmac, allowing passengers to leave the aircraft if the delays exceed three hours, re-booking and refund. Passengers may be compensated up to C$2,100 for lost luggage and up to C$2,400 if bumped from a flight.

Not surprisingly, the airlines – supported by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – are saying the rules go too far. Advocates of passenger rights on the other hand say they do not go far enough. But it nevertheless is a step forward.

Europe

The European Union’s regulations have been expanded to include connections even if they are operated by non-EU airlines.

The new regulation states: “In the case of flights with one or more connections that are subject to a single reservation, an operating air carrier that has performed the first flight cannot take refuge behind a claim that the performance of a subsequent flight operated by another air carrier was imperfect.”

The operating carrier will also have to offer passengers alternative transport for the disrupted flight, in addition to compensating them with an amount ranging from US$290 to US$700.

The European Union has been a prominent pusher to protect passengers’ rights. Considering its history of disruptions caused by industrial action by airline and airport staff, this is a welcome move to air travellers.

However, many travellers may be discouraged by the cumbersome claims procedure which may involve a cut by an agency handling the claim on their behalf if they choose to go through a third party, and by the long settlement time of a claim. Still, it is another step forward.

One wonders, if a non-EU airline agrees to abide by the EU regulations for its flights operating into and out of Europe, is there a good chance it would be as amenable to similarly apply fair treatment to its customers outside the region, particularly at its home base?

At last, Emirates will be offering premium economy

Courtesy EPA

Emirates Airlines is the latest of the few remaining major airlines to jump on the premium economy bandwagon. The Gulf carrier is launching the service in 2020. And as one of the world’s best airlines according to several surveys, it promises a product as one to beat.

Emirates CEO Tim Clark said, “We’re aiming to make it a quiet zone, a comfortable zone.”

It will be an exclusive cabin. Besides more legroom, better food and beverages, and other perks, the seat will be a “sleeperette”, but it will not be a lie-flat bed as in Business Class. The idea is to attract economy class passengers to upgrade. And Mr Clark has said the prices will be “well below business class fares.”

Emirates’ entry into this segment of the business will certainly heighten the competition among rival airlines that are already offering premium economy. A noted rival is Singapore Airlines (SIA). Interestingly, Emirates seems to be following in the footsteps of SIA which held out for quite a while before it decided to fly premium economy behind several other major carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Qantas. Both SIA and Emirates are known for their excellent service in the upper classes, but they cannot ignore the growing appeal of that in-between class that their close rivals ride on.

Closer home, it may not be a question now as to whether Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways will also come on board but when

Will Qatar Airways be Malaysia Airlines’ white knight?

Some three to four months after Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohamad said ailing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) may shut down or be sold, he revealed he had received four proposals to take over the national flag carrier.

The first known interest came from former AirAsia non-executive chairman Pahamin Ab Rajab and five partners, whose consortium is looking at scooping up a 49 per cent stake in MAS. Whether AirAsia is part of the consortium is not clear, but the budget carrier’s chief Tony Fernandes had said he was not interested as it would be a mistake for a low-cost operator to want to go full-service. (See Can AirAsia save Malaysia Airlines, 8 July 2019)

Qatar Airways now emerged as the second prospective white knight come to the rescue of MAS following a meeting between Dr Mahatir and Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamin Hamad al-Thani. Both Qatar and MAS belong to the OneWorld alliance. At least that’s common ground for a start, unless geopolitical problems Qatar faces with its neighbours that lead to its isolation in the region stand in the way.

But, of course, no doubt Qatar has the funds to shore up the loss-making MAS. There are good competitive reasons for doing so. The tie-up will certainly boost Qatar’s standing in Southeast Asia and the extended Asian region. Dr Mahatir has recognised that MAS suffers from fierce competition, and Qatar’s aggressive strategy in the international arena may well also push the Malaysian carrier in the same direction.

The acquisition will complement Qatar’s investment in Europe, where it is already a major shareholder of the International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus. With a share of 20.01 per cent, it s IAG’s largest single stakeholder.

It is interesting that of the four proposals received by MAS, Qatar is the only foreign company. It is not known if the other proposals are from industry players apart from the suggestion that Mr Pahamin had an aviation link in a non-executive capacity. That probably explains how many industry experts think MAS’ best bet is AirAsia, once a carrier heavily indebted and now Asia’s leading budget operator.

Qatar’s credentials as the world’s best airline voted by Skytrax respondents are impressive, but national pride to keep the flag carrier in local hands may present a hurdle. Yet one only has to look at Swiss International Air Lines now owned by the Lufthansa Group and the merger between Air France and KLM to appreciate how in business, the desire to survive will dictate the course. Already Dr Mahatir has assured his people MAS will retain its name.