How to make United Airlines keep its promises

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You could almost hear a collective groan from the traveling public last week when United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz promised a congressional hearing that his airline would “do better” in the wake of the David Dao dragging incident.

Better than what, exactly?

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Even before the airline called law enforcement to have the doctor hauled off a flight from Chicago to Louisville — an incident captured on video and widely reshared — the airline was no customer-service star. It scored a 70 out of a possible 100 points (that’s a C-, kids) on the authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index, the lowest among legacy carriers and a point below no-frills Allegiant Air.

Complaining about United had become a hobby for air travelers. It ranked No. 2 for total passenger complaints, behind troubled American Airlines. The top grievances: flight problems, baggage issues and customer service.

Even before the shameful passenger expulsion, passengers could have been forgiven for wondering if things could get any worse. The answer, of course, was: Yes.

The circus of congressional hearings aside, it’s worth asking if meaningful change is possible. Perhaps. Either way, there are methods of ensuring any travel company, not just an airline, will keep its promises.

Passengers doubt that air travel will improve in the wake of the Dao hearings. “Algorithms have replaced genuine customer service,” complains Kevin Farris, a Chicago-based salesman. “It’s all who you are, what you spend and your class of ticket. I don’t believe a word of what the airlines say that they’re going to do to fix their broken system.”

Congress seems skeptical, too. Late last week, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced legislation that would prohibit airlines from imposing fees, including cancellation, change and bag fees, that are not reasonable and proportional to the costs of the services provided. Congressmen Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Adam Kinzinger ,R-Ill., started beating the drum on their Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act to direct the Federal Aviation Administration to establish minimum seat-size standards necessary to ensure the safety and health of airplane passengers. If these measures passed, United would have to keep its promises.

It’s difficult to fully describe the level of consumer anger against airlines — indeed, against the entire travel industry. It’s not just that travelers are fed up but that they feel completely powerless.

“What choice does the public have?” asks Evelyn Spencer, a travel agent from Chadds Ford, Pa. “Airline A, B … or C? The airlines know it and feel they owe the public nothing.”

How do you get a travel company to keep its promises? Fortunately, I know, because I see it happen every day. It all starts with a public pledge like the one Munoz made. At some point, he’ll have to put it in writing, and when he does, he’ll probably wrap it in a preposterous advertising slogan, like “the world’s most trusted airline.” Please stop laughing. It’s already been tried.

Of course, the actual contract — the legal agreement between you and the company — will tell you something quite different. It will say you have no rights, and the airline, cruise line or hotel can do whatever it pleases.

Too often, customers forget that they can lean on the public promises, the “customer commitments” and the advertising slogans when they’re up against a rigorous legal contract (see below). For example, did you know Delta Air Lines promises to offer you “the lowest fare available”? That Avis pledges a “stress-free car rental experience” in its corporate mission statement? And that Carnival Cruises even assures it will do “everything it can to give our guests a lifetime of memories”?

Every day, I see consumers invoking these lofty promises to get fair resolutions to a consumer problem. The best ones do so quietly, methodically and politely, and in writing. You can, too.

Ultimately, the strongest argument is the one you’ll almost certainly be able to deploy soon: You lied.

To actually do better, United would need to spread out its seats to give passengers a humane amount of personal space. It would have to drop some of its unconscionable fees for ticket changes, seat reservations and other ancillary charges. And it would need to embrace a customer-first philosophy that flows through its corporate DNA. That’s highly unlikely.

United isn’t alone. A few days ago, American Airlines, which assured Congress it would focus on consumers and publicly guarantees “safe, dependable and friendly air transportation,” revealed plans to shrink the amount of space between some of its economy-class seats by two inches. Some consumers saw that as neither safe nor friendly, and as yet another promise broken.

American Airlines is taking away more legroom in economy, report says
“We know a company is telling the truth by their history of promise keeping,” customer service expert Chip Bell says. “Actions speak louder than words.”

Three places companies hide their promises

• In a corporate mission statement or vision statement: These are buried deep on a company website. Sometimes, they are not even published online. They can usually be found with an online search of the company name along with the phrase “mission statement” or “vision statement.”

• In a trade group “bill of rights”: Sometimes, trade groups pick up the mantle of customer service for the entire industry. Take cruises, which have their own cruise industry “passenger bill of rights.” The bill guarantees, among other things, the right to a full refund for a trip that is canceled because of mechanical failures.

• In advertisements or public statements by executives: Fly the “friendly” skies? Seriously, folks. Invoking a line from an ad or a quote from a CEO is often enough to make a company give you the compensation you deserve. I’ve seen it time and again.

32 thoughts on “How to make United Airlines keep its promises

  1. I suspect there will be an exception to the fee/cost requirement: Making a significant change in a non-refundable ticket. Of course there should only be a nominal fee for correcting spelling or a minor flight change, say within 24 hours of the ticketed time or for taking an earlier flight standby, but having a very small fee for a major change will convert a non-refundable ticket into an instrument of gaming the system to avoid a full fare ticket, which would just eliminate all low cost non-refundable tickets.

    1. The stand-by fees were issued, in part, as a response to abuse by business travelers purposefully booking late flights (like the 7PM – 9PM) flights that are typically cheaper and then standing by for the prime time flights (4PM – 6PM).

      1. That’s a very dubious explanation/excuse for the policy changes.

        Unless you have elite status, your chances of getting on an earlier flight were never that great. And business travelers generally don’t pay for their own tickets and aren’t pinching pennies.

        And under current policies, elite passengers can generally still stand by and/or make same-day flight changes for free….. So if you are calling that ”abuse”, then airlines still invite this kind of abuse that you claim their policy changes were designed to eliminate….

        1. First, you typically must have one of the higher elite statuses to get on an earlier flight for free. Low-level elites do not get this perk. The policies differ by airline, of course.

          Many business travelers, while not traveling on their dime, do still try to save their company or clients money. It is the ethical thing to do. If the 8 PM flight is $100 and the 5 PM flight is $300, the airlines want their $300 and do not like the “creative” types that book the $100 fare and get on a flight that should have cost them $300.

          I only offer an explanation based on what I have seen and from the people I know who work in the industry. I also indicated that it was one of the reasons. Not the only reason.

          1. I’ve heard this excuse trotted out before and I point out why I believe it’s just an excuse.

            When I traveled for business, I usually booked the last flight back not because it was cheaper (it was usually the same price) but because it gave me the flexibility to spend more time at the client site if necessary.

            I don’t think I ever saw an example remotely like your $300 @5pm / $100 @8pm scenario. And if and when the earlier flight was costlier, that was generally because the earlier flight was full or oversold and I wasn’t expecting to get on that flight as a stand-by unless I had a high elite status…

  2. Many moons ago, United’s rep was so bad a special web site was created for complaints, I remember when they bought Continental, the fear among the CO frequent fliers I knew (including me) was that United’s service quality would become the norm… And it did.

  3. What Dr. Dao did was not right, even if he did create attention to an airline practice which is bad. However, the biggest problem is the complete lack of regulation where it comes to passenger comfort. There are maintenance regulations so that the planes are in good working order, but somehow this need for regulation stops at the maintenance part and falls short of specifying minimum seat sizes, seat pitch etc. Creating these minimum seat sizes and space per passenger would go a long ways towards solving problems, because airlines would have to get lower fares by operating more effectively, not by cramming passengers onto a plane like sardines. It seems that the same old story is that they have to get more passengers into a plane to get the fares to “where the passengers want them”. This is the road to ruin that we are on. I am not saying to regulate every aspect of airline operation,but we need to put an end to this making seats smaller, charging extra for things which are required (whether it be a standard seat or a resort fee or a carry on bag). Airport landing fees should be included in the fare, because they are necessary. As should all “fuel charges” . Fuel is an expense like any other, it needs to be embedded in the fare..we need a no nonsense, non partisan straightforward set of rules which puts the airlines on the same footing….that makes it “fair” to the alrlines because no one else can then make seats smaller ….and fair to passengers. I or any number of people could easily write a set of regulations that would work. Legislators need to be fair and address this issue sooner rather than later.

    1. “Creating these minimum seat sizes and space per passenger would go a long ways towards solving problems, because airlines would have to get lower fares by operating more effectively, not by cramming passengers onto a plane like sardines.”
      If an airline were to remove several rows off each of its aircraft in order to give passengers more pitch and wider seats, it would then charge higher ticket prices in order to make the same amount of revenue per flight it now makes. Granted, depending on the number of seats on the aircraft, that could amount to something as little as $20-30 per ticket or more for smaller aircraft.
      I myself, would be willing to pay a bit more for the seats of yesteryear, but it seems most people now want to fly for as little money as possible and here we are.

  4. Watch what you wish for…
    So lets say Blumenthal and Malarykey’s bill goes through…
    Of course it doesn’t cost the airlines $200 to make a change to a non-refundable ticket. So instead, your ticket is now non-refundable and non-changeable. Problem solved. More revenue for the airlines. You lose.

    Bag fees… Well the first bag every day cost the airlines a ton of money. Cost of the ramp personnel, ramp vehicle maintenance, ramp vehicle depreciation, luggage system rental / maintenance & depreciation (depends on the airport if the airline owns or rents the baggage system) and check-in desk personnel costs. Its the famous “bridge cost problem.” The airline can argue a huge expense on the first bag every day (everything above has to be paid for that first bag everyday… every other bag is basically free) and justify any cost because of it.

    Mandate more leg room etc… fine but the cost of tickets will go up and now families can’t fly any more.

    1. Mandate enough leg room to make people fit, not enough that the tickets go up astronomically. American has just taken away 2 inches. Did their rates go way down (I don’t know I”m asking)? There is a “minimum cost” for decent air travel, but it doesn’t need to be unsustainable. I remember when Uber in Canada was told they would have to charge GST (tax) like everyone else. They started saying “rides will go up 20%”. The tax is 5%. So an efficient service like Uber, is saying that they have a cost base where charging a 5% tax costs three times that much to process? One needs to rationalize these statements.

    2. If the bill goes through, then the Secretary of the Department of Transportation would be required to draft new regulations, which among other things would have to account for “any net benefit or cost to the air carrier from the change or cancellation“, including taking into account the carrier’s ability to fill the seat with another revenue paying passenger.

      So making the ticket non-refundable and non-changeable actually won’t “solve” the problem or produce more revenue for the airlines.

      Re: bag fees, you make this unnecessarily complicated. All the costs you cite would be factored in. The fee charged would be constrained by the average cost per passenger plus a ‘reasonable’ markup based on standards the Secretary of the DOT would have to review/update every 3 years.

    3. exactly – they want all the perks of regulated airlines with none of the costs – they forget it WAS called the jet set who flew for a reason

  5. ” legislation that would prohibit airlines from imposing fees, including cancellation, change and bag fees, that are not reasonable and proportional to the costs of the services provided.”

    How does one possibly enumerate the cost of a cancellation or change for a particular ticket? Such costs will vary hugely over time for a given ticket, and some won’t even be possible to figure out. Some can’t be known until the flight departs (possibly months later), and even then, impossible to apportion in a way that will satisfy everybody. (A flight leaves with one empty seat, and over time, six people had cancelled/changed, each on different days. Who gets how much money for the five seats the airline re-filled? (Keeping in mind that all 11 bookings in question may have paid a different price to begin with.)

    I DO think the way cancellation and change fees are currently handled is crazy and pointlessly customer-hostile. It makes no sense for there to be the same fees six months before departure as there are sixty minutes before departure. The most sensible method, in my book, would be to do what cruise lines do: A nominal (or zero) fee X months before departure, escalating to 100% as departure approaches. (Of course, that means they’ll be plenty of people angry when there last-minute cancellation costs them the whole fare, but this structure has the advantage of making some amount of sense.)

    And bag fees? It was stupid for the airlines to ever tie them directly to fuel cost, but baggage handling IS an expensive process.

    Overall, this legislation is both going nowhere, and is bizarrely punitive. I’m all for better disclosure of costs. I think making things like bag and change fees more obvious would be a great idea, I even think a legal mandate makes sense. But to say that an airline CAN’T charge more than X for Y thing? Why MUST cost bear any relation to price?

    Outside of utilities, in no industry I’m aware of does the law mandate how much profit a business is allowed to earn on something. Why should airlines be any different?

    1. The utilities have to produce electricity which is 60 cycles per second and is within a range of voltages, that is a given. They could save a lot of money by dropping the voltage to 60 or 80 volts at times of high demand, but we require the voltage to stay higher, within range. Same thing for seat sizes……many of these “laws” emphasize the wrong things. I am glad that electricity is not governed as poorly as air travel, it would be a mess!

      1. While seat size isn’t part of government rules (except to the extent that the plane must be evacuated in a certain amount of time), airlines are quite heavily regulated. Personally, I think the “majors” would be somewhat pleased to have a minimum seat size so they don’t have to keep chasing the fares on Spirit, et al.

        Fun Fact: Voltage is somewhat variable across a power grid (each substation is going to be delivering slightly-different voltage to end users), and the distribution network runs at a wide range of voltages; as a result, the power grid is regulated (both legally, and technically) by frequency. When the generators physically begin to slow because of excess load, the frequency drops; that’s the signal to bring more generation capacity online, and vice-versa. Tidies up everything across a grid in one, neat, number vs. trying to figure out what to do at a plant in Pittsburgh because a transmission line 15 miles outside Philly is having a kVA sag.

        I’ve been to the control room for PJM Interconnection (PA, NJ, MD), and besides the grid map on the main wall, the current frequency of the grid was displayed to three decimal points throughout the room.

    2. Go read the legislation. It is barely 4 double-spaced and easy to read pages. The Secretary of Transportation would have wide discretion during the rule-making process on how to write the regulations to accomplish the legislative objectives.

      The most obvious way to do it would be to just use average figures based on the number of days/weeks before departure.

      “Outside of utilities, in no industry I’m aware of does the law mandate how much profit a business is allowed to earn on something. Why should airlines be any different?”

      Airlines have always been different. Since the Airline Deregulation Act, they have been generally exempt from state and local consumer protection laws and generally exempt from most federal regulations, such as those of the FTC. They answer only to the FAA/DOT.

      1. Wow. If I was a regulation-writer, I would not be looking forward to the passage of that bill. At all. The guidelines are both horribly vague in places (it never even gives a hint as to what they have in mind for “reasonable or proportional”, meaning ANY possible rule is going to be mired in expensive litigation for years) and over-specific in others… the rule must take into consideration (among other things):
        – The ability of airline booking management systems to predict the number of changes, cancellations, and resales (never mind they’ll vary widely by carrier; for instance, Southwest’s is notoriously ancient and decrepit)
        – The fare difference for any resales.
        – How a change may fill a seat on another flight.

        Saying that the secretary “shall” take those specific factors into account isn’t “wide discretion” at all. Especially since they specifically refer to “an airline’s” (singular) ability to do things, not the ability of airlines (plural), in aggregate, to do things. They refer to the ability to fill “a seat”, not “seats.” That means they couldn’t just collate some historical statistics, come up with a general rule, and call it a day. Some nasty formulas that make the tax code look easy would be involved. Seats can be filled (or not) on airlines according to some general statistics. But “a” seat (which to me reads “specific seat on a specific flight”) on “an” airline? That’s way more complicated. A seat from Debuque to Little Rock on Podunk Airlines is probably going to be tough to fill, while one from NY to LA on United ain’t. (Yes, you could say “but surely the law meant aggregate numbers”, and that’s an argument the government would be stuck making during the inevitable litigation.)

        Yes, basing the fee on the number of days/weeks before departure (no matter what airline or flight) WOULD make a lot of sense (it has the virtue of being simple, anyway), and indeed, it’s one I’ve repeatedly said I wish airlines would adopt. But it’s not one that would meet the requirements of that legislation. Not even close.

        Such factors vary hugely by carrier, route, time of day, day of week, and time of year. (Not to mention unpredictable factors like political unrest swelling up, the condition of the economy, or who’s going to the Superbowl this year) The airlines themselves screw this up all the time, leading to some flights that are full to the brim weeks in advance, and others that don’t book nearly as many seats as expected and turn into a money-pit. (And what happens for new routes where the airline has only a vague clue about how often passengers are going to cancel?)

        The likelihood that this rule would be ready for publication in 270 days from law enactment is precisely zero, especially given how it allocates exactly $0 to write it. (That would have to come from a House bill.) And before you say: “But the law says they have to!” Regulatory agencies blow through legislative rule-writing deadlines all the time, sometimes by decades. Some things just take a long time (and funds Congress often neglects to allocate.) And the courts know this; they rarely force agencies to issue late rules.

        There are ways to structure change fees more sanely (even via legislation), but these mindbogglingly complex proposed rules (or ones stuck in the courtroom longer than Jarndyce. vs. Jarndyce) aren’t it.

        And keep in mind airlines DO answer to state courts, just not state-specific laws. Airlines are not exempt from common-law torts (which represent most of the things one might want to sue an airline over), as long as the standards applied are those from the Federal level. (And even if the airlines were subject to FTC rules or state laws, they don’t tell companies how much profit is “reasonable or proportional” either.) For instance, if your airline cancels your flight out of town and fails to refund you, you can sue them in your local Small Claims court, just like any other defendant operating in the state. (And airlines are not exempt from all FTC rules either; for instance, they are still subject to FTC anti-trust review.)

        1. The guidelines are intentionally very general to give the rule-makers leeway. There is no requirement that the rule take into account any of the variables you claim it must.

          Proportional just means proportional. A fee that is based on a percentage of the ticket price, or a flat fee that is based on an average case or based on a representative bright line case, would be entirely compatible with the legislation.

          None of this would constrain what overall prices airlines can charge or what profits they could earn. It just forces them to compete primarily on fares, instead of hiding the true costs of their product in ancillary fees which cannot be compared through the GDS cartel systems that are used to search for and book itineraries.

          BTW, airlines are in fact exempt from much of common-law and contract law that protects consumers per the interpretation of the Airline Deregulation Act in Northwest v. Ginsberg.

          1. “There is no requirement that the rule take into account any of the variables you claim it must.”

            Sec 2 (c) : (c) CONSIDERATIONS.—In establishing the standards 25 required by subsection (a)(2), the Secretary shall consider—[list of things here]

            In legislative-ese, “shall” is actually an interesting case, because it can mean either the imperative OR the suggestive sense, depending on long list of circumstances impossible for a non-lawyer to understand. (And while Congress can use any words they please, no matter how confusing), federal regulators are specifically prohibited from using the word. So it is a definitive thing to say that it’s a poorly-drafted law, and Markey should have known better when writing it.

            I can say that if the FAA were to use the suggestive meaning of shall, (and ignore those factors, or consistently change their meaning when drafting the rules) that would be something else to litigate over.

          2. You left out the considerations in that section — which had to do with calculating the airline’s actual costs (such as their ability to recoup revenue by re-selling the seat).

            The Secretary COULD issue super complex rules that account for all the variables you mentioned.

            They COULD also issue a simple rule based on the average case or based on one or more bright line cases.

            I’m willing to bet that they would choose the simpler approach.

          3. No, I did not leave it out; I said:
            “the rule must take into consideration (among other things):
            – The ability of airline booking management systems to predict the number of changes, cancellations, and resales (never mind they’ll vary widely by carrier; for instance, Southwest’s is notoriously ancient and decrepit)
            – The fare difference for any resales.”

            In the interest of brevity, I thought putting “[list of things here]” in my previous post would have been good enough to demonstrate I had read said list (which I had already summarized in my previous post, and pointed out attributes in the list that appear to require vast complexity, specifically the use of the singular when aggregate rules would have used the plural). Apparently you are looking for any reason to argue with me, because in one post you said those considerations didn’t exist, and then in another showed you had read them and said I left them out. Make up your mind.

            And, again, when the listed considerations (which “shall” be considered) talk about AN airline and A seat, that does not lend itself towards something simple. And if I’m an airline fighting tooth and nail against any proposed rule, that’s certainly something I would argue.

            The law could have been written directing the FAA to gather aggregate statistics and provide a uniform time and fare based rule that could be applied to all advance-purchase airline tickets on all airlines, (that totally makes sense and is something I wish airlines would voluntarily adopt) but it didn’t.

            I’m not reading (or responding to) any further posts in this thread. You are persistently mis-stating both the (poorly-written) law and what I’m saying with no apparent end than to argue with me.

          4. Pot. kettle. black. Your exact words:
            “they couldn’t just collate some historical statistics, come up with a general rule and call it a day”
            they “must” account for “carrier, route, time of day, day of week, and time of year. (Not to mention unpredictable factors like political unrest swelling up, the condition of the economy, or who’s going to the Superbowl this year
            are completely unsupported by anything found in the bill you are arguing about…

  6. Time for seat size minimums. And for penalties to airlines who don’t make “persons of size” pay for the two seats they occupy. I love that some guy is suing one of the airlines over that.

    1. unfortunately, they have ALSO been sued for enforcing those rules, as they charge it is discriminatory – so the government would have to change certain laws to allow it – believe me, the airlines would have NO trouble charging double – its passengers who whine

    2. There are several problems with your hateful approach to seat prices.

      First and foremost; The seat size is small compared to the average male. Fifty years ago, the elbow-to-elbow width of an adult male was 16.9-inches, with a standard deviation of 1.84 inches — 33.5% of adult males would be fat-shamed with your rule in an 18-inch wide seat. On a United 737 with 16.3-inch wide seats, over half the adult males would be considered too big, and that is 50 year old data.

      1. The most important consideration to seats is number of paxs and ability to evacuate on under 90 seconds.
        The law now is that say you build and sell a new plane, say an Anderson 677. It seats 200. You go thru the evacuation testing and the rest and you get certified.
        Then say the Anderson 677 is not quite fuel efficient as hoped, so they add 20 seats. Carriers love the idea. BUT, in these cases they don’t have to go thru the evacuation testing. They can use a computer model that all is safe. Ridiculous and unsafe.

    3. There is a valid argument that many ovetweight paxs could be considered as being discriminated against. Have a transplant? Those drugs u take the rest of your life can add dramatic weight gain. Diabetes, is another. Genetics plays a role. It also plays a role in being obese. The general publics belief that this is all controllable and they should be punished, so you can be comfortable, is not current scientific thought.

      I’ve seen obese travelers treated so cruelly on planes by crew and fellow paxs, it makes me sick.

      1. What are the %s of folks who are overweight because of a medical reason compared to those who just won’t stop putting food in their mouths? Seriously, get real.

        1. Yes, get real.
          You can’t tell by looking at someone if their oversized condition is due to eating too much or is related to a medical condition. I can’t even guess at what the percentage is. I doubt even doctors who treat obesity can tell without doing a thorough exam.

  7. You gotta give props to United facing this straight on. Delta’s case with the family? They’ve said little and have spent the last week cleansing the web of the video. AND now they are being net shamed for “covering it up”. They should have followed United’s lead.

  8. Good article, Chris. You nailed it. It’s all talk. Nothing in writing and certainly not in actions (hello, American).

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