Sunday musings: Unruly passenger rules, 1st Class piece-by-piece, overbooking economics

DFW Airport by Leocha

Our food for thought today includes whether international passengers rules should be more consistent, buying a first-class airline ticket perk-by-perk, and where economics should rule overbooking or customer care.

IATA pushing international rule changes

IATA is seeking to come up with new international rules with which to handle unruly passengers in the skies. Which country is legally responsible for actions taken in the air? The airline’s country? The country where the airline took off? The airline where the unruly person lands or is thrown off the plane? The organization is also recommending making passenger rights consistent across borders, which would be disastrous for US and European passengers.

Gill [IATA director, aviation environment,] said two necessary updates to the 1963 Tokyo Convention involve legal jurisdiction and flight crew immunity. The jurisdiction issue deals with archaic wording. The Tokyo Convention grants jurisdiction over passenger offenses to the State of Registration (SoR). However, today, about 40 percent of aircraft are leased, so the SoR may have no relation to the country from which the airline operates or the one in which the aircraft lands.

Why is this a problem? Gill cited an example of an international flight in June on which a female passenger was restrained “because of violent and abusive behavior.” However, upon landing, the local police would not charge the woman and refused even to interview her because they lacked jurisdiction.

Another realm in which IATA believes justice is inconsistently administered is passenger rights. Tony Tyler, IATA director general and CEO, called European Commission Regulation 261, which establishes rules on flight delays, cancellations and denied boarding, “our biggest passenger nightmare.” The European Parliament is reviewing the regulation in the coming year. However, Tyler said, “Even though many causes of delays are completely outside the control of the airline, the Parliament [looks likely to] limit [such] extraordinary circumstances to external strikes and massive disruptions.”

IATA lists 53 countries worldwide with formal passenger rights laws or declarations. “When things go wrong, we don’t want to compound things with confusing or conflicting regulations on how passengers should be treated.” But, Tyler said, with the proliferation of differing passenger rights rules, “the chances of that happening are growing.”

First class treatment a la carte

What was once considered first class treatment on airlines can be purchased perk by perk. This study claims that there is much less emphasis on elites, but in my experience there is more emphasis on these golden geese than ever. Airlines now are willing to offer partial elite treatment for a price while pouring it on with abandon for the real high-spending elites.

…many international airlines now offer an a la carte menu of perks – everything from personal escorts at check-in and fast-track security screening to getting a luxury car ride right to the ramp of the aircraft – all for as little as $125. That’s almost the cost of your baggage check and a stale sandwich.

“It came as a surprise to us how much is on offer,” says Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorksCompany, which researched and compiled the report. “Many airlines have held back on offering these additions, as they did not want to upset their frequent flyers. Now there is much less emphasis on elites.”

Should JetBlue overbook?

Aviation industry insiders can’t understand why JetBlue doesn’t overbook its flights. Experts all claim that the airline is leaving profits on the table with their stance. Passengers love the certainty of booking with JetBlue. However, analysts claim that the actual number of passengers being bumped is minuscule and profits should come first. Those “minuscule numbers of passengers” who find themselves missing meetings and family gatherings don’t always agree that airline profits should come first — they feel that they should get a seat on a plane that they booked.

Because it doesn’t overbook, JetBlue enjoys the lowest rate of involuntary denied boardings in the industry: only 18 people out of 21.3 million passengers through the first three quarters of 2013, the latest period for which data are available. Virgin America, with a bump rating close to JetBlue’s, oversells only on certain flights and usually limits the number of seats directly to the number of no-shows it expects in coach, spokeswoman Jennifer Thomas said in an e-mail.

Several analysts expressed puzzlement over why JetBlue has avoided a common industry practice that can tip a particular flight’s financial performance from loss to profit.