Canada acts to protect passengers’ rights

Courtesy Toronto Pearson Airport

NO better time than now it is for aviation authorities to step forward and assure air travellers of their rights. The recent spate of complaints about mistreatment by airlines in North America arising from overbooked situations has certainly heightened the awareness of the urgent need for protective measures.

The Canadian government is introducing legislation setting out national standards and measures that will apply to all airlines operating into and out of Canada. Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau warned that if airlines “don’t change some of their practices, there will be repercussions.”

One of the rules applies to bumping passengers off in an overbooking situation. Mr Garneau said: “If somebody has bought a ticket for a particular flight that person cannot be removed from that flight. This is non-negotiable.”

It is however not clear how this rule will play out as it is believed that details on compensation are being worked out. Indeed, the main problem is likely to be one of enforcement and the cost of monitoring as the European Union has found out. At the same time, the rules are often open to different interpretations and dispute, and that in turn makes enforcement difficult and cumbersome. Consequently the whole process takes a long time to be resolved and becomes ineffectual. .

While this is not the first time that measures to protect passengers’ rights are introduced in Canada and the Untied States, one hopes that as the dust over the spate of complaints settles, the matter will be kept in constant review and not be relegated to the back burner.

Humanizing the airline business

Never before was there so much publicity given to customers’ complaints about mistreatment by the airlines in North America ever since the David Dao incident when the seated passenger was forcibly removed from an United Airlines flight by security personnel. Stories of being bumped off a flight abound, and added to these other stories that include flight cancellations and misconnections, checking into an incorrect flight that took the passenger half way around the world, and death of a treasured animal in the cargo hold.

The beef is more about the way such a situation was handled by the airlines than the fact that it did occur. Take, for example, the incident of a 15-year old boy, technically classified as a minor, who was travelling from Denver to Thunder Bay via Toronto on Air Canada. He missed his connection when the flight out of Denver was delayed, and Air Canada duly rebooked him to fly to Thunder Bay the following day but did not offer any accommodation or vouchers for food.

Courtesy Air Canada

In an interview with BC News, Derrin Espinola said he felt “trapped… very hungry, very tired, very scared.” No one helped, even as he went from counter to counter to explain his situation. While Air Canada had issued a statement to say it was “truly sorry”, the blame appeared to have been placed on runway construction works at Toronto’s Pearson Airport and “exacerbated in this case by adverse weather”.

Was this really Espinola’s fault for having faith in the airline’s trusted his service? His mother, Karin Patock, who tried in vain to reach the airline by phone, said she chose Air Canada for its policy about flight delays as stated on its website: “Youths travelling alone (ages 12 to 17) will be taken care of by our agents. We will also arrange for accommodations, meals and transportation if needed.”

The spate of stories now made possible by the power of the social media may have caused many travellers to not believe that airlines in pursuing the dollar do really care for all that they boast to be better than their competitors. But they are beginning to listen, or so it seems as each time a nasty incident like this happens, they apologize readily and are said to be reaching out to the affected passengers and even compensating them as some form of amelioration for their distress, however irreparable.

In the case of denied boarding, which will continue to be practised by most of the airlines with the exception of JetBlue Airlines and Southwest Airlines in their stated policy, the major airlines have vowed to reduce overbooking and increased their compensation for volunteers who give up their seats.

Certainly the authorities have also taken note of the frustrations of passengers within the purview of their legislative responsibility to protect the rights of travellers.

Airline advertisements generally paint the romance of caring crew and other personnel to reduce the stress of travelling. Mind you, many of them do live up to their word. Recent incidents could signal a timely re-focus on procedural constraints and methodology in tackling difficult situations. The social media has given voice to travellers, and what is happening is a humanizing of the airline business as a reminder to carriers that they are dealing not with mere business numbers but people who deserve to be treated with dignity.

Fares will rise to sustain security screening in US

Photo by Kristi Wong

Just as you think that fares are coming down as airlines rationalize their cost structures and the fuel surcharge for one may be a thing of the past in the current climate of the low oil prices holding steady, don’t hold your breath that this is going to stay for long.

The Trump administration is cutting non-defence spending which may affect airport security programs as the Homeland Security department focuses on other priorities such as immigration enforcement and building a border wall along the border with Mexico.

According to an article published by Conde Nast Traveler, the US government wants air travellers to pay more of the cost of funding airport screening. The additional fee will be charged to the ticket. US carriers are said to be fighting this, but until they succeed, it will mean higher fare.

However, this is not a new surcharge. According to Conde Nast, there is already a September 11 security user fee of US$13.20 charged to the ticket, and this is expected to increase by another US$2. While the increase may seem small per ticket, it is appears that the level of security screening is premised on fliers faced with no choice but to cop up the couple of dollars. How much more lies in store?

Fret not, there’s plenty to do on board without your laptop

NO big deal, the airlines affected by the US and UK ban on carriage of electronic devices larger than a normal cellphone in the aircraft cabin are taking the restrictions in their stride. (See US & UK ban laptops on board: Will this become the security standard? Mar 22, 2017)

Some of the carriers from affected destinations in Africa and the Middle East are taking the opportunity to publicize and promote their award-winning in-flight service and in-flight entertainment system that has so many games and movies you will not miss your personal laptop.

Courtesy Royal Jordanian Airlines

And if you’re still short of things to do to fill up your time, Royal Jordanian Airlines is recommending a list of to-do that includes reading a book, saying hello to the person seated next to you and meditating. Indeed, many travellers might have forgotten what it was like to be holding a book (not an e-reader) and flipping the pages. What about colouring books and playing cards, the old pleasure before everything goes electronic? And knitting may make a come back.

Without the distractions, you may be able to catch a good snooze (or something deeper for a longer flight) and arrive in better shape.

It is early days yet, to assess the impact of the ban on the mode of travel. The industry has shown its resilience and creativity, and so too will travellers who, however much they may gripe about the loss of certain privileges, have demonstrated time and again their ability to adapt.

US & UK ban laptops on board: Will this become the security standard?

Courtesy Emirates

SOON after the United States bars passengers on foreign airlines taking off at ten airports in Africa and the Middle East from carrying electronic devices larger than a cellphone, the United Kingdom announced a similar ban although the list of airlines and airports may be different.

The ban will affect items such as laptops, tablets, e-readers, cameras, printers, electronic games and portable DVD players. However, these articles may be carried in checked baggage.

Affected airlines and airports

The US restriction affects nine airlines: EgyptAir, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and the Gulf big three of Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. The airports affected are sited in Amman (Jordan), Cairo (Egypt), Casablanca (Morocco), Doha (Qatar), Dubai and Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Istanbul (Turkey), Jeddah and Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), and Kuwait City (Kuwait). It is estimated about 50 flights daily would be affected.

The British ban affects 14 airlines arriving from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon,Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey. While the US ruling exempts US carriers flying from the listed airports, the British restriction applies as well to home-based airlines British Airways and EasyJet.

Why the restrictions?

The reason for the bans is of course one of security, aimed at preventing terrorist attacks on commercial airlines. The US Department of Homeland Security said: “Terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.”

The British government said it recognised the inconvenience these measures may cause but “our top priority will always be to maintain the safety of British nationals.”

Few air travellers, if any, will take issue with enhanced security measures since it means a safe flight. Any averse reaction is to be expected, as when full-body x-ray and search became mandatory at US airports. The inordinately long wait to clear security at US airports has since then become an accepted practice.

However, it will do well not to ignore the arguments put forth by experts who may not yet be fully convinced. Technology experts have questioned the premises which in their mind appear to be at odds with basic computer science.

What goes with the ban?

The ban on laptops means no one will be able to work during a flight, something that businessmen and women will sorely miss. Keeping yourself or your kids entertained with electronic games of your personal selection will be a thing of the past if you do not like what the airline offers in its system. What about that novel you thought you might at last be reading during the long journey, having loaded it in your e-book?

Sure, you can pack these (and your camera) in your checked baggage to loaded in the aircraft hold, but it defeats the purpose if they are intended for use during the flight. Also, if these are expensive equipment, passengers are often reluctant to pack them in checked baggage for fear of losing them or having them damaged. Some observers are predicting a rise in incidents of theft in the baggage holding area and cargo hold, and airlines will be confronted with the messy business of handling claims. Apparently baggage theft skyrocketed when Britain imposed a similar ban in 2006.

Laptops, tablets, cellphones and cameras are among the items that are already being subjected to additional security checks before they are cleared as carry-ons. It can only point to the suspicion that the current procedures are not robust enough.

Looking at the bigger picture, some experts fear the ban seems lopsided. First, if a laptop as an example may be used as an incendiary device, it is equally dangerous in the cabin as it is stowed in the baggage hold. Second, the ban targets named originating airports, but a terrorist suspect could always connect a flight from a presumed safe airport or fly on a presumed safe airline. Third, in the case of the US, to make exceptions for flights originating in the US is turning a blind eye to the possibility that mischief could also be traced to a home source.

Some airlines may benefit from the ban

It looks like an unexpected turn of events for the US big three of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines in their quest to get the US government to act against the perceived unfair competition by the Gulf big three (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar). The ban may well benefit the American trio as travellers are likely to want to travel with their electronic devices on board than to have them stowed in the baggage hold. A pertinent question would be how the US carriers would ensure the devices brought on board are safe the way that other carriers may not be able to do so?

Similarly, in the case of the UK ruling which covers also budget carriers, legacy airlines will have the edge if, unlike budget carriers, they do not charge for checked baggage. Easyjet, for example, will be challenged to think up an innovative approach to this issue.

And will airlines across the industry introduce loans of security-screened laptops on board for a fee?

The future

Although the ban is said to be temporary (as indicated by the US), will there be a change of mind to make it permanent, like the ban on liquid obtained before security clearance? Amuse yourself about a future when all you are allowed to bring on board are the clothes you are wearing and a wallet. Everything else needed or desired for the journey as determined by the authorities and the airlines may be purchased after take-off.

For now, some airlines may mull over the use or disuse of a happy passenger working on his or her laptop in their ads.

Things are getting better for Economy travel

Courtesy Getty Images

American Airlines is not going to let rival Delta Air Lines go it alone in bringing back free meals for their flights. (See Delta Air Lines ups the ante, reintroducing free meals in Economy, 19 Feb 2017) However, American will for a start reinstate the freebie only two domestic routes – New York to Los Angeles and New York to San Francisco. Nevertheless it is an indication of how the competition is heating up, and how the game has come a full circle. It is only to be expected that United Airlines (and others) will follow suit.

In the end, it is not a matter of the meals but one of being ahead in the game, doing something different. Interestingly, across the pond in Europe, British Airways (BA) is doing away with free meals and has announced plans to add more seats in Economy, thus reducing the pitch. (See British Airways is becoming more “budget” than Ryanair, 7 Mar 2017) Here the critical question is whether BA is a leader or a follower in the European context, although it appears it is somewhat of a Johnny-Come-Lately and what Delta and American are doing may force it to re-think its strategy.

At no time than now is coach travel getting more attention from the airlines, which understandably have been paying lots more attention to the premium product because of the higher yield. (See Cathay’s loss is a sign of the times, 16 Mar 2017) And that’s good news for the majority of travellers.

Asian airports dominate Skytrax best rankings

Courtesy Changi Airport Group

Not surprising that Singapore Changi clinched Skytrax’s 2017 Best Airport award for the fifth year running, commended for having the best leisure activities. As a hub airport, it is how best travellers are relieved of the stress of travel that will garner an airport favourable ratings. Changi is a favourite transit airport with its array of amenities, restaurants and shops.

What else can we infer from the survey said to be based on 13.82 million responses from 105 different nationalities, conducted from July 2016 to Feb 2017?

The top spots are held by familiar names of the last five to six years – Incheon International (3rd), Munich (4th), Hong Kong International (5th), Munich (4th), Zurich (8th) and London Heathrow (9th).

Incheon was ranked the best airport in 2012 before Changi took over in 2013, and until this year, it was a close second.

Special mention should be made of London Heathrow, which was the world’s busiest airport for international traffic until Dubai took the honours from it for two years now – Dubai did not make it to the list as being among the best.

It would appear that performance consistency is key, yet stagnation can lead to one losing the competitive edge. Changi has always prided itself as being innovative, constantly upgrading and expanding its facilities.

Making strides are Tokyo Haneda (2nd) and Doha’s Hamad International (6th). Tokyo Haneda was ranked 9th in 2013, 5th in 2015, 4th last year and 2nd this year. Hamad entered the top ten list at the bottom last year and made it up to 6th this year.

Besides Tokyo Haneda, there is a second Japanese airport in the list, namely Centrair Nagoya (7th). Tokyo Narita and Kansai Osaka were also ranked in previous years. It does say a lot about Japanese airport management.

It is no surprise that four Japanese airports are ranked among the top ten cleanest airports – Tokyo Haneda (1st), Centrair Nagoya (3rd), Tokyo Narita (5th) and Kansai Osaka (9th). Except for Zurich (8th) and Hamad (10th), this list is dominated by Asian airports, the others being Incheon (2nd), Taiwan’s Taoyuan (4th), Changi (6th) and Hong Kong (7th).

Similarly, the best airport staff service list is made up of nine Asian airports with the exeption of Vienna (10th): Taoyuan (1st), Incheon (2nd), Tokyo Haneda (3rd), Changi (4th), Centrair Nagoya (5th), Kansai Osaka (6th), Kuala Lupur International (7th), Tokyo Narita (8th) and Hong Kong (9th). Clearly service is an Asian strength.

One other Asian airport deserves some mention as the most improved airport – Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta Airport. Will it make it to the list as one of the world’s best?

By bow you have noticed that no airport outside Asia, the Middle East and Europe are listed in this year’s Skytrax top ten/ The only outsider was Vancouver International which was ranked 9th in 2012, 8th in 2013 and 9th in 2014. Yet again, this does not come as a surprise.