No question about it, airlines have some of the most restrictive rules in American business. In the travel industry, nothing compares to the fine print in an airfare.
So it was no surprise that a story about a reader who wanted to talk Southwest Airlines into a refund for two bridesmaids was one of our most visited stories in the recent past.
The story sparked an interesting debate about refunds and name changes, but it also hinted at an issue that frustrates many consumers, and particularly readers of this site. It’s that airlines impose all kinds of strict rules only to selectively break them. And the question is: Why are they the only ones who can bend a rule?
How “special” do your circumstances have to be for a refund?
That’s an answerable question. I’ve asked airline executives. Pressed them for an answer. We all know that even the strictest airline rules can be bent or broken when the company wants. What prompts them?
Airline #1 is a large legacy carrier based in the south, and when I asked one of its managers, I remember the VP of customer service repeating the phrase: “We want to do the right thing.” That’s a good answer, but not a specific one. Does she mean right for the airline? If so, then we should have an absolute “no waivers, no favors” policy.
But that’s not what she meant. Rather, “right” is a guiding principle to selectively waive the carrier’s rules because it seems like the correct thing to do. That may account for the scarcity of complaints we receive from the carrier.
Airline #2 is a large legacy carrier in the Midwest. Its executives mentioned that their M.O. was “fairness.”
“We want to make sure all of our rules are applied in an evenhanded way,” a VP said.
Again, that makes me wonder: Fair to whom? Unfortunately, the answer was: fair to the airline. And that did, indeed, mean throwing the rulebook in their customers’ faces with great frequency. The company’s complaint record proves it.
As a sidenote, I can’t stand it when companies hijack words like “fair” and “right” to their own ends. The rhetoric is meant to make employees and airline apologists feel better. But to passengers who really need help – yet are informed that a refund would not be “fair” to other customers – the words ring hollow.
Finally, airline #3: The largest of the legacy carriers I interviewed. An executive said rules get waived on a “case by case” basis, and that a compelling story was necessary. And, the exec added with a wink, “we’ve heard ‘em all before – so good luck.”
This was by far the most troubling response because it suggested that “right” and “fair” don’t even matter. Rather, the burden is on you to come up with a good enough story (whether it’s true or not). Of course, this airline also gets the most complaints.
I believe all of these answers are incorrect. In fact, the entire premise – that somehow, passengers should be appealing to an airline for compassion when circumstances beyond their control force them to cancel a trip – is wrong.
We shouldn’t have to ask an airline to be right or fair. In a competitive market, the invisible hand should write tickets with reasonable fare rules. Yet anyone who thinks the current airline industry is competitive is drinking the airline lobby’s Kool-Aid.
Lift the country’s antiquated cabotage laws and then we’ll talk about competition.
Anyway, it seems pretty clear that airlines won’t waive their ridiculously restrictive fare rules unless you say the magic word or do a song and dance, and that really shouldn’t be necessary. It’s time for something to be done.
The airline industry can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. The free market has failed. Perhaps it’s time for more legislative measures.