New rule: 3 travel policies that should be revived

Fumiko Seguchi did everything by the book on her recent flight to Tokyo. She confirmed her departure 24 hours in advance. She secured a seat assignment. And she arrived more than two hours before departure.

But Seguchi, who was visiting a friend in Orlando, couldn’t have anticipated the long check-in lines at the airport. “There were only a few ticket agents at the counter, so the line went on forever,” says Fran Mingle, Seguchi’s friend. “She waited and waited. After getting concerned about missing her flight because of the inordinate delay, she asked if she could be accommodated next but the American Airlines personnel told her ‘no’.”

Seguchi missed her flight and was asked to pay an extra $2,600 for a ticket the next day. American had thrown the book in her face.

If this had happened a decade ago, Seguchi probably wouldn’t have paid an extra dime. Airlines had what’s known as a “flat tire” rule that allowed passengers who were delayed because of circumstances beyond their control to be rebooked on the next flight at no additional charge. But like many of the travel industry’s customer-friendly policies, the “flat tire” rule was quietly dropped after 9/11 in an effort to raise revenues. Compassion went out the cabin door.

Maybe it’s time to bring back some of these rules.

I asked American if it might revive its rule for Seguchi, as an exception. After some negotiations, and a frantic call to her travel agent in Japan, she was allowed to fly back to Japan for a nominal change fee. American sent her a $200 travel voucher for her trouble, but defended the practice of charging passengers for a missed flight. “While we make every effort to ensure there are enough agents staffing our ticket counters, it is not always possible to forecast the number of customers who will need assistance — especially when unexpected circumstances cause long lines,” said airline spokeswoman Andrea Huguely.

Which policies ought to be revived? Here are three worth considering:

The flat tire rule
Getting rid of the “flat tire” rule was an incredibly profitable mistake. Not only because it’s unfair, but also because it formalizes a double standard. Passengers like Seguchi are expected to give airlines a break when there’s bad weather, an air traffic control problem or a mechanical delay. But when air travelers can’t make their flight for reasons completely beyond their control, airlines often insist on sticking it to them for a full walk-up fare. That’s what Northwest Airlines did when Jeremy Gaisin’s car ran out of gas and he missed a flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam recently. It charged an extra $1,400, but generously agreed to waive a $250 change fee. He tried to appeal to an executive, but “the agent was saying they would not speak to me,” he says.

Too bad his flight wasn’t on Southwest. It still has an informal “flat tire” rule, according to customers. (I asked Southwest, and a spokeswoman told me “we do empower our employees to handle each situation on a case-by-case basis,” and added, “Is that ambiguous enough for you?” Um, yes.)

Grace period for car rentals
A few years ago, in an effort to make more money, car rental companies tightened their grace periods for late-arriving customers. A reasonable one-hour window was abbreviated to half and hour and in some cases, closed entirely. That meant many customers would have to pay late penalties ranging from an extra hour billed at the company’s highest rate, to an extra day. Take Richard Gordon, a small-business consultant who lives in York, Pa., who rents a car several times a week. “I’m renting a car from Hertz today, and it’s going to cost an extra $98,” he told me.

Why should car rental companies become more generous, particularly at a time like this, when their earnings are on the verge of a breakdown? The answer is simple: We cut car rental companies a lot of slack when they’re understaffed or have run out of cars. I waited almost an hour for my last car, but I didn’t complain and certainly didn’t try to pay less for the car. But the company wouldn’t have hesitated to charge extra if I brought its vehicle back only a few minutes late. Seems a little unfair, doesn’t it?

The real Rule 240
“I’d like to see them bring back Rule 240,” says travel agent Sylva Frommer-Mracky. “The true 240.” Ah, wouldn’t that be nice? But who knew that the Rule 240 being used today was a fake? The original Rule 240, which outlined what carriers would do for passengers whose flights were delayed or canceled, was part of the airlines’ tariff rule — its legal contract — before the airline industry was thoughtlessly deregulated during the Carter administration. “Such services often included things like meals, phone calls, or endorsing the ticket over to another carrier at no additional charge to the passenger,” says Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the Transportation Department.

Even after deregulation, airline agents continued to write “Rule 240” on tickets when rerouting a passenger. But airlines weren’t required to comply with the old 240, and did so only as a way of staying competitive. The government required airlines to follow their contracts, but didn’t mandate a Rule 240. “A passenger’s entitlement to Rule 240-style services depends on what might be specified in that particular carrier’s contract of carriage, not on any single industry-wide rule or standard,” adds Mosley. I don’t know of any sane airline expert who would oppose the return of a real Rule 240.

Some of these rules are already in effect, but you have to travel a fair distance to experience them. For example, Europe’s Rule 261/2004 offers Rule 240-like protections for air travelers. Other countries have strong laws that prevent companies from imposing predatory rules on their citizens, which, come to think of it, would be a nice thing for travelers in the United States.

It would be even better if travel companies would revive these rules on their own, for no other reason than that it’s the right thing to do. The money earned from customers who couldn’t make their flight, were caught in traffic on their way back to the car rental location or had the misfortune of being on a plane with an operational delay, is insignificant compared with the revenues companies will lose when their customers decide to stop doing business with them.

And that day will come soon.

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