Fair Warning: This is a rant. But, I hope after reading it, you'll agree it's a well-justified one.
After watching all the news reports of JetBlue passengers being stuck for 11 hours inside a parked airplane during a winter storm earlier this week, and then discovering that they were helpless to do anything about it, I--like most others--asked Why? We've heard all the airline's contrived excuses about liability issues, etc.. But the reality is far different than the airline industry would have us believe: In fact,there are no government regulations limiting an airline on how long they can keep passengers on grounded aircraft. It turns out that the only measure that currently exists out there is a minimalist "voluntary code of conduct" that says during extraordinary delays, they'll try to take "reasonable efforts" to meet passenger needs for food, water, restroom facilities and medical assistance. And, in fact, the airlines have blocked any minimum legal standards for customer service.
As the JetBlue incident graphically demonstrates, the voluntary code of conduct hasn't stopped them from being rampantly unreasonable. A similar incident happened on December 30th, when American Airlines and American Eagle diverted 121 flights bound for Dallas to other cities because of thunderstorms. Ordinarily, that would be fine. Inconvenient, but fine. But as a result, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 passengers were left sitting on parked aircraft for up to eight hours. After this incident, American said it would place a four-hour limit on how long passengers would be kept on grounded planes. Well, for those of us who have been unfortunate enough to experience it, four hours on a tarmac is still excessive when you are in a hot cabin without ventilation. Eight hours is reprehensible. ...Eleven hours is criminal.
If you've ever wondered about the power of lobbying, this is a prime case-in-point: In the late 1990s, the nation's 14 largest airlines joined forces to block a drive by Congress to enact legal protections for passengers--all of this after a series of similar flight cancellations and delays.
Rather than do the right thing (something that could potentially diminish their profit margin), the airlines opted instead for the lowest common denominator and agreed to an Airline Customer Service Commitment and incorporated it in their customer agreements, called "conditions of carriage," which are legally enforceable by the customer against the airline. The airlines said they would notify customers of delays and diversions, try to deliver baggage on time, refund tickets promptly and meet customers' essential needs when they were stuck on parked airplanes. But that's where their responsibilities end. Unwilling to place their customers first, the airlines refused to limit the amount of time they could keep passengers inside airplanes on tarmacs.
My experience of an extended stay aboard a hot, airless cabin occured in Dallas aboard an American Airlines jet. After five hours, they let finally let us off. Based on the way they handled that situation, I decided not to fly American Airlines again--at least until they reformed their organizational culture. Obviously, they haven't.
Incidents like JetBlue and my own American Airlines experience reveal the soul of those corporations. The relentless drive for profits has stripped away any concern for the customer beyond what they're required by law. So, for instance, when an incident like JetBlue or American happens to you, and you're trying to get some answers from the counter, you discover that the airlines are required only to refund the cost of your ticket. Nothing more.
The days when airlines would offer to put travelers up at hotels or pay for their meals following a weather-related delay are gone forever, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.
"This is the brave new world that has been created in this new low-fare era,'' he said. "We are getting the kind of airline system that we have paid for.''
Indeed, services and amenities previously available to passengers a relic of the past, replaced by toilet paper roll contests down the aisle, flight attendants with antics that are often too cute by half, zero leg room, and a bag of stale pretzels. Meanwhile, in their boardrooms, airline executives with multi-million dollar pensions and catered gourmet lunches over teak conference room tables wonder why their companies are on the road to
perdition bankruptcy. They've forgotten that by cultivating a customer-centric corporate culture that is professional and courteous, the profits naturally follow. This is not to say that most flight attendants and pilots aren't absolute professionals. The majority are. But it's the corporate management that needs a stark reality check. It's unfortunate that it takes extreme events like this to be the catalyst for 360 organizational reviews (as JetBlue now says they're conducting).
"We won't keep you on the tarmac longer than an hour...and we'll keep the air conditioning on." ...I haven't heard any of the airlines come out and publicly make that simple statement, but for any that do (and make it binding), that will certainly catch my attention when I'm shopping for an airline ticket. I won't hold my breath. Nor should you. Instead, for the foreseeable future all we have are the vacuous airline "customer service agreements," "conditions of carriage," "voluntary codes of conduct," and "passengers' bill of rights." What the airlines are trying to tell us with each is, "Don't worry, passengers...Don't worry Congress, we'll police ourselves." Well, these events provide ample evidence that the airlines are just not capable of taking care of their precious cargo...at least , not alone.
So, in the meantime, JetBlue has joined American Airlines on my own personal list of Infamous and Ignominious Airlines. I'll let you known if/when they do ever come off....