Airline tickets are contracts between the passenger and the carrier, but it’s the airlines that hold all the cards. From setting the rules to changing them after purchase, passengers are nearly helpless and that’s not right.
The Airlines Hold All The Cards
A number of provisions allow the carrier to change any of the conditions of the contract and few of them offer an opportunity for the consumer to terminate and refund the purchase. Classify this as a rant if you like, it’s an accurate categorization. I wanted to address a few items about the airline purchase agreement passengers adhere to when flying after having a specific issue recently.
I switched a flight to make a meeting. There was a fare difference and fee that changed the fare from around $400 roundtrip to $1,000. I had to get to a meeting that day and it was the only suitable flight, though the price was unconscionably high for a direct three-hour journey. I agreed to the price change because it was my plans that had altered and I had to be there.
But then United had a mechanical issue. The delay would make it impossible to make my meeting. Had I never changed my flight, I would have been in the same position – missing the meeting – but after paying the extortionate rate for a seat in coach (I hadn’t even cleared my upgrade) I was stuck late and out $600.
And there was nothing I could do.
Is that equitable?
If I was late to the flight, the airline might grant me a courtesy and rebook me. Or they may not, it’s at their discretion. Even if I show up on time for my departure, but not the 10-20 minutes early that most airlines demand before closing the boarding door, I could be sent packing and rescheduled as well. This isn’t news (there’s no “BREAKING” headline here) but I often forget about how many ways the airline has an unfair advantage over the consumer.
If, however, the airline has a mechanical issue (the EU considers that to be within the control of the airline) I am delayed but owed nothing. If they fail to adequately schedule crews, resources, or supplies I am owed nothing though I paid for transportation with the appropriate accouterments. It seems inequitable, and in most instances, inequitable contracts are unenforceable.
What Does United Owe Me?
If I buy something from Amazon and never receive it, I am entitled to a refund. If I order a pepperoni pizza and get Hawaiian (which should be immediately thrown in the garbage), I can return it, keep it (it’s already in the bin as a public service anyway) for free or get a new replacement, often at a discount.
This falls under non-performance. United was happy enough to charge me the fare difference for the flight and a change fee, and I agreed to pay it to fly on that flight and make my meeting. So when United fails to perform on the contract, shouldn’t I be owed money back? How much money am I due? Is it just the change fee and fare difference I paid? What about extra money I spent at the airport parking over the flight I had originally booked? Is that not a direct result of their failure to perform? What about passenger downtime? While I can work from a laptop and a phone anywhere, not everyone can.
There are other tangible costs (I booked a hotel for a day earlier, an extra day on my car rental) but what about the intangible. My meeting was to secure a sale, what if I lose the deal? I can’t expect United to pay for my potential business results, but that doesn’t mean that their delay forcing me to miss my meeting wouldn’t have any effect on my business outcomes either.
Mistakes Happen, Safety Is Everyone’s Top Priority
Everyone makes mistakes from time-to-time and I believe that there should be a fair amount of forgiveness available for those who do, I make them all the time. But If I charged someone and failed to deliver, I don’t get to keep the money; United (and all of the other carriers) do. I don’t mind paying more to get more or to get something different, but if that product isn’t delivered, I don’t expect to incur the charge anyway. This isn’t a lottery, it’s a contract.
The delay I experienced was of a mechanical nature and I am not suggesting that United play roulette with safety. I want them to be safe as much as they do. But when that safety or mechanical delay causes the deliverables of our contract to breach, why am I still holding the bag? If I have a safety issue that prevents me from making my flight, a last-minute doctor appointment, a rush to the hospital, United isn’t going to send me a check back for my fare stating, “safety is our number one priority”, they only get to say that when they mess up and hold my journey hostage.
What do you think? Are airlines responsible for delivering what they sell?