What if the federal government said “enough” and ordered the airline industry to behave? Would they comply?
I ask because we’ve had our fair share of debates on this site about government re-regulation, and specifically about introducing an EU 261-style law to the States.
For those of you just tuning in, EU 261 mandates that airlines compensate passengers when their flights are delayed. Consumer advocates say we need such a law in America. Airlines say we don’t, claiming it would increase fares. There’s no evidence to support the assertion that prices would go up.
At any rate, I thought about the issue of a careful, focused re-regulation after I heard from Corrine Plieth, who had what I believed to be a valid EU 261 claim. Last fall, her American Airlines flight from Barcelona to New York was delayed by more than 4 hours. Under EU 261, she was eligible for 600 euro compensation.
“I emailed American Airlines customer relations, as suggested by the sign posted at airline check-in, and I received no response,” she says. “I emailed again … and again. I called, was placed on hold for 40 minutes and was told that my case was under review.”
Two months later, she received the following email from American:
We are terribly sorry that we didn’t get you to your destination as planned. Regrettably, the mechanical issue with the particular airplane scheduled for your flight caused an unavoidable delay. Still, we can appreciate how frustrating it must have been to spend your time waiting for your flight to depart.
We’d like to apologize in a concrete way and have credited 7,500 Customer Service Bonus miles to your AAdvantage account to do so.
While we know you were upset with us, we are glad you took the time to write to let us know. It gave us this opportunity to express our apologies for what happened and attempt to make things up to you. Please continue to fly with us.
Plieth didn’t give up. She found an official EU complaint form, filled it out and contacted American and Spain’s airline regulators. Their response? Nothing.
“So far, I have emailed American Airlines 10 times. Most of the time I never receive a response. American has been rude and unresponsive in this matter. Oh, did I mention I’m a member of their loyalty program and have flown over 1.5 million miles on American?” she says.
Oh, let’s not go there.
I contacted American on her behalf. Its response:
After careful review, we were unable to locate any information that would alter our original response. This was an unexpected situation and [we] took all steps technically and economically viable to prevent this delay; therefore no compensation is due under the regulation.
It’s true, there’s an exception for “extraordinary” circumstances, but in several recent court cases, those were narrowly defined. The European courts tend to classify a mechanical problem as a circumstance that is within an airline’s control, which American knows full well.
“Seems a bit dodgy,” says Plieth.
So why am I bringing up EU 261 again? Because if we had a similar regulation in the United States, this case is a pretty good indication of what domestic airlines would do, should their passengers file a valid claim. They’d look for any loophole they could to weasel their way out of paying a claim.
I mean, think about it. Did American have to tell Plieth, or me, or the government, what the delay was? They did not. We had to take them at their word. Were they required to respond to her written complaint within a specific amount of time? Again, no. They just stalled and ignored her, by her account.
If you look at the intent of EU 261, which is enforced by Europe’s individual aviation regulatory agencies, it’s pretty simple. When an airline sells a ticket from point “A” to point “B”, it’s reasonable to assume that, barring an “extraordinary” circumstance, it will actually operate the flight when it says it will. And if it doesn’t, it has to compensate its passengers for the trouble.
No one should have to order airlines to do this — they should do it because it’s the right thing to do.
But you know what? They probably don’t know what the “right” thing is.
And after trying to advocate for Plieth, I’m not sure they would do it, even if they did know.