I can’t think of any other industry that has contracts with customers that are as one-sided as we see it in the aviation industry … but it’s been like that for a long time.
Airlines generally promise nothing
Reader Vincent emailed me about a frustrating experience with United Airlines. Vincent took his girlfriend up to business class on a flight from Seoul to San Francisco for Valentine’s Day and paid $ 600 plus 30,000 MileagePlus miles to upgrade (what a good friend he is!).
Two hours into the flight, a glitch in the entertainment system caused the crew to restart the system and somehow the entire passenger cabin went without “power” for the remainder of the night flight, meaning there was no entertainment, no charging, no Wi-Fi -Fi, no leaning back and not even lights.
No goodwill was offered by the crew, but an offer was made for a $ 200 voucher after contacting customer support. United said there was nothing else to be done.
Vincent finds this inappropriate and is absolutely right, of course – he paid a significant amount to upgrade (I’d estimate $ 1,020- $ 600 cash plus 30,000 miles, which I estimate at $ 420) but didn’t get a flat bed, entertainment, power or something else. How he concludes:
“Although I am certainly dissatisfied with the result, I am more frustrated about the immense power asymmetry between carriers and customers in the market. Although 2020 has brought about some positive changes, the current contracts of carriage remain one of the most customer-restrictive and merchant-protecting agreements in the business world (e.g. United’s CoC rule 24-I essentially does not guarantee service and the class of service is unilaterally dated Company defined). We filed a complaint with the DOT but we are not expecting much as United has technically not violated any of its commitments. “
Airline contracts of carriage promise very little
That’s why people don’t like airlines
In many ways, I think consumers are inappropriately harsh on airlines. The airline business is incredibly complex and low margin, and airlines really can’t win with consumers. At the same time, is that surprising when we look at how they treat customers?
Imagine booking a stay at a Hampton by Hilton and expecting free breakfast, free WiFi, a hot shower, etc.
But imagine if you had found out the day before that your stay had been postponed for a week. Then when you arrive at the hotel you will be told there is no breakfast, no wifi, no running water etc.
Would you expect to pay? To hell with the number. To go one step further, Hampton by Hilton has a customer satisfaction guarantee:
Making you happy makes us happy. If we can improve your stay, speak to a member of our team and we will make sure you are 100% satisfied. GUARANTEED.
However, if an airline delays your flight or does not offer basic services as promised, you are out of luck as these things are not promised in the contract of carriage.
Hampton guarantee not to come to an airline near you
Can we do something about it?
What can be done in situations where realistically you don’t get what you paid for, but the airlines are unwilling to move? There are a few routes you can go:
- You can file a consumer complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT). It won’t necessarily get you anywhere, but airlines do tend to take complaints filed through the DOT seriously, and those complaints also apply to the airline in relation to published statistics
- You could dispute the charge to your credit card (in this case, cash for the upgrade). While the contract of carriage does not promise certain services, if you do not receive the promised product, you can dispute a credit card fee and the airlines promise certain amenities on their website
While I cannot guarantee that a credit card dispute will be successful, in many cases these airline disputes will succeed. So it is worth a try as it lacks other options.
Should the government get involved?
Air contracts where carriage is completely unilateral is an accepted business practice, so one has to wonder if the DOT should maybe regulate a bit more. The US has generally been pretty sloppy when it comes to consumer rights for air travelers.
In other words, should airlines be allowed to promise one thing in their marketing but then offer something entirely different without affecting their contract of carriage?
I don’t want to play both sides here, but I can also appreciate the challenges of trying to regulate this given the operational complexities airlines face and the complicated pricing in the aviation industry.
For example, suppose you book a paid business class ticket from Seoul to San Francisco and experience the same thing as Vincent’s girlfriend. What regulations should the government put in place to prevent this situation from being so unfair? What percentage of the fare should be reimbursed? What if only one power connection does not work? What if only Wi-Fi is not working? What if the seat doesn’t recline for half the flight while it leans back for the other half?
I’m not saying these hurdles could not be overcome, but I also recognize that there may not be an easy answer here.
Airlines’ contracts of carriage are completely unilateral. The airlines will market certain amenities and flight schedules, but the contract of carriage to which you agree essentially makes it clear that nothing is guaranteed – not the flight schedule, not the onboard amenities, etc.
As a consumer, it’s incredibly frustrating, and it’s this uneven power dynamic that also makes people so despise airlines. While some people have minor complaints, I find Vincent’s complaint above to be very reasonable. If you pay 30,000 miles plus $ 600 to upgrade and then can’t even recline your seat, you should get more than $ 200 voucher.
What do you think of unilateral airline transport contracts? Is there any useful way to regulate this?