If the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) decide to approve the merger of American Airlines and US Airways, they should attach industry-wide consumer-focused conditions to the approval.
The first remedy below can be required of the merging carriers. The next two industry-wide remedies focus on strengthening competition. The final conditions deal with customer service and contracts.
With some substantive aviation policy changes such as these, consumers will get something positive out of this transaction.
1. DOT should take away some slots at slot-controlled airports. They should make sure that these slots go to low-cost carriers, and that gates and counter space is made available to smaller airlines that choose to compete with the entrenched carriers at these slot-controlled airports. This will provide some semblance of new competition.
2. Airlines must disclose all ancillary fees through all channels where they choose to sell airline tickets. The market system only thrives when prices are transparent and comparable across airlines. This is the only way that effective full price competition can flourish.
Without full and dynamic extra fee disclosure, consumers have no hope of comparing all-in prices across airlines — prices that include airfare plus baggage and seat reservation fees. If all ancillary fees are fully disclosed in a dynamic fashion, software from third parties will eventually allow comparison of the full cost of travel across airlines. Such a change would allow passengers to bundle their own airfare and compare prices before they purchase airfares.
Plus, passengers should be able to purchase airfares and any extra fees at any place that the airlines choose to sell airline tickets. This stops the present airline practice that forces passengers who buy airline tickets from travel agents to later purchase extra services directly from the airlines.
3. Congress should review the ban on allowing foreign carriers to serve domestic routes. As the domestic line-up of carriers shrinks and as domestic carriers abandon smaller airports, foreign carriers could offer service to smaller airports as a way to guarantee essential air services.
4. Implement minimum seat width and legroom standards.
Even dogs are protected by humane minimum-space rules. It is time that airlines declare some sort of minimum pitch and width for airline seats.
5. Add customer commitments to the airline contract of carriage. Passengers today have no contract with airlines that control how they are treated as customers. Airline-created customer service obligations dealing with airfares, flight delays, cancellations, lost baggage, bumping, etc., should be legally enforceable. Airlines already enjoy federal preemption. Consumers should be provided an enforceable contract of carriage.
6. Adopt a “plain English” and standard contract of carriage. Consumers have a right to have contract terms clearly stated and understandable.
7. Provide passengers clear customer service contact phone numbers for use during travel.
Passengers deserve the ability to call, in real time, a customer-service number or reach an airline representative using their electronic device should they be faced with problems during their travels. This need for real-time customer service becomes more important when airline itineraries cross domestic and international airlines due to code-share and airline-alliance arrangements. This phone number should be staffed with personnel who can solve problems and assist consumers with issues while traveling with airlines and their partners.
8. Display consumer service instructions at all airline gates and baggage claim areas.
Airlines should be required to inform passengers of their rights and the airline customer service commitments prominently at airport check-in areas, boarding gates and baggage carousels.
The E.U. has created posters that have can be seen displayed at airports across the union. These humorous posters have a basic message: “You have rights.” They have been produced for the past five years and their display is voluntary. Here in the USA, airports have been reluctant to display such public information posters for fear of upsetting the airlines.