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Aviation

How to survive flying on US planes as lax regulations make for a turbulent 2018

Be ready for more hidden fees and ticket restrictions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 5:38am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 7:16am

The past year may have seemed like a challenging one for the US’s airline passengers - but the year ahead may be even tougher.

Airline experts, consumer advocates and frequent travellers have warned to expect more fees, ticket restrictions and, inevitably, additional confrontations between customers and staff.

The first stirrings of trouble for the New Year actually came in April, when Delta Air Lines gave passengers bound for Europe or North Africa some very bad news.

From April 10 onwards, the company announced, basic economy passengers travelling between the US or Canada and those regions will be charged for all checked-baggage – US$60 for the first bag and US$100 for the second.

At the same time, the US Department of Transportation quietly abandoned two proposed consumer protection rules.

The first would have required airlines to disclose baggage fees at the start of a ticket purchase; the second would have made airlines report their revenue from fees charged for extra services, such as early boarding, seat reservations and carry-on luggage.

While the government’s decisions had no immediate effect on passengers – after all, they were still on the drawing board – they signalled a shift in the Transportation Department’s attitude towards consumer protection.

Look closer, and an even more troubling picture comes into focus for passengers.

The department has not implemented rules required by Congress which would allow families to sit together or regulations requiring airlines to refund checked-baggage fees when they lose passengers’ luggage.

“It’s as if the police decided not to do their job,” said Charles Leocha, chairman of Travellers United, a Washington passenger-advocacy group.

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That is the framework for flying in 2018. Airlines, emboldened by a government that can’t or won’t regulate it in the way most customers expect it to, will try to squeeze passengers for every dollar. Leocha said he expects airlines to ask the federal government to begin dismantling the few existing rules on the books, which they have derisively referred to as “command-and-control” regulations.

Indeed, they’ve already formally asked regulators to discard two of the most significant consumer-protection rules recently enacted: a 24-hour refund rule and a “full fare” advertising rule that requires an airline to quote a ticket price that includes all taxes and fees.

If that happens, it may be even harder to determine the actual cost of a ticket, persuade an airline to cover your expenses when you’re delayed or get a ticket refund.

So what do consumers need to do in an age of lax regulation and rising fees?

“Travellers will need to do a deeper dive to determine what is – or is not – included with each fare they purchase when they are comparison shopping,” said Craig Fichtelberg, president of AmTrav Corporate Travel of Chicago.

Fliers’ options are perhaps more limited than ever.

With just four major US carriers, which many consider an oligopoly, you can’t threaten to take your money elsewhere. But there are ways to level the playing field a little.

Even though the government may be looking the other way, travellers aren’t.

Consider last year’s customer-service disasters, virtually all of which involved a viral video taken on a smartphone camera.

Airlines fear your camera and the power of social media because they have the power to influence public opinion.

That is one reason they’re fighting so hard to ban photography on planes, an issue that is certain to come up again in 2018.

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“Changes are going to be driven more by consumers than by regulation or even the threat of new regulations,” said Seth Kaplan, the editor of Airline Weekly, a trade publication.

“The good that came out of the Dr Dao incident is that airlines are now bumping far fewer customers involuntarily than before, even in the usual less dramatic ways than by dragging them off air planes.

“Airlines got the message loud and clear that the public won’t tolerate that kind of incident, and then an airline’s initial indifference to what happened.

“Hopefully, they also got the broader message that it’s better to prevent problems before they happen than to scramble to address them later.”