Posted by: Jerry Garrett | December 22, 2009

What Are You Worth, Airline Passenger? $27,500?

Airline passengers get a porthole-sized view of the Tarmac Winter Olympics

What is your time, as an airline passenger, worth?

The Obama Administration says $27,500. That is what you – one passenger – will cost an airline, if you are left stuck in a plane, on the tarmac, for more than three hours. A planeload of 300 people could run up a fine for an airline of about $10 million.

The airlines argue that you are worth much less – more like nothing.

But they have lost that argument, with the adoption this month of new rules by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The rules (see them in entirety here) are intended to provide enhanced rights for airline passengers (Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has championed similar legislation).

Predictably, the airline industry threatens dire consequences, out of control cost increases, and – get this – “more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience”.

Can anything be more inconvenient than being stuck on an airplane for 11 hours, with no food, no water, and no sanitary facilities? Certainly, passengers on the Eurostar/TGV trains that broke down last week in the English Chunnel, would answer, “Yes!” But those beleaguered train passengers are only now experiencing what U.S. airline passengers experience on more than 1,500 occasions – per year, on average. Ground delays of more than three hours affect about 115,000 passengers each year, the transportation department reported. (Oooh! That would be worth $3,162,500,000 in fines now!)

Since it is hard to imagine any airline willingly incurring those kinds of fines – heck, they won’t even spring for free peanuts anymore – it will be interesting to see how they try to avoid them.

Will they return to the gate after 2:59 of delays, open the door for a minute, then close it, and taxi back out – like pro basketballers, with a new 24-second shot clock?

You just know they will think of something devious – like they do now, to avoid putting delayed passengers up for the night – such as boarding people on planes which they know aren’t going anywhere for hours. Or telling us when our plane has arrived that we can’t unload “because there’s another jet that hasn’t left, at our gate.” Like they didn’t know about that hours ago.

Or they may just out and out lie.

On a recent delay at O’Hare Airport that was going to last all night, United told passengers they were not entitled to any compensation, no overnight accommodations, and no meal vouchers. That was a lie, as I pointed out to the customer “service” agent (who gave me a voucher for the Hilton across from the terminal, and rebooked me on the first scheduled flight out in the morning).

Two things fall short, in the new rules announced Monday by Ray LaHood, the Transportation secretary. One, we – the people – don’t get any of the fine money in our pocket; in Europe, delayed passengers are entitled to as much as $860 in restitution. And two, the rules don’t go into effect until mid-April 2010.

That’s plenty of time for the airlines to give you a parting gift this holiday season.

Jerry Garrett

December 22, 2009

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