The power of regulations

This week I travelled to Europe on one of the major American Airlines, Actually it was American Airlines, but it could have just as easily been United/Continental or Delta, because in the following respect they are all exactly the same.

I was at Heathrow airport about to return to New York, when American decided to cancel all their flights to the East Coast. I was in the lounge surrounded by American Employees. I was told that all flights were cancelled and that I would need to rebook in a few days once they were flying again. There was no help offered to even get my fellow passengers or me back to a hotel. Nothing, except the advice to call the American phone number to re-book.

As this was going on Virgin and many other European airlines were still having flights go both ways. Actually American chose to cancel all their flights in excess of 30 hours before the US airports were officially closed. While, the European airlines were flying to within a couple of hours of the airports being closed.

I wondered why the difference. And it turns out it’s down to a regulation that European airlines have to follow. All European airlines must pay the costs of passengers who are stranded when a flight is cancelled for any reason. They have a clear financial incentive to keep moving people. While the American deregulated airlines do not have to follow these rules.

At no point was safety an issue. The exact time when the airports and flight paths would be dangerous was clearly known, but all American Airlines chose to just cancel their flights. I assume they suspected that many people wouldn’t want to fly or would not be able to reach the planes in time, and so the planes would be mostly empty. So it was a purely financial decision, which placed a huge additional burden on the travelling public.

I was at Heathrow working out how to get out of the terminal and get back to the city, while multiple Virgin flights continued to fly to and from the East coast. All these flights of course were full.

I called American to change my flights. And waited on fully loaded phone systems for hours with presumably thousands of other passengers. When I eventually did get through the American agent explained to me that the civil Aviation Authority had closed the airports. I explained that this was not true and used Virgin as my proof point. The agent stuttered a little and then went on to plan B, and said that this was a huge storm and not something in Americans control. While I didn’t disagree that the storm was going to be terrible, I explained that it was still over a day away. I wasn’t really interested in an excuse but wanted to work out when was the right time to expect to be able to get back. He suggested I wait until the next weekend (a full week later). We eventually agreed that Wednesday would be a safe bet, and he rebooked me on an indirect flight, as all direct flights were already booked.
All international flights cannot be changed online on American, but require a call to the airline. The agent I spoke to tried to charge me a $370 change fee, which I disputed due to the Hurricane, but he insisted on a credit card number before he would book it.

The experience was so terrible, that I decided to call Virgin and book a backup flight with them. What a different experience. A happy, even chirpy agent who answered the phone was able to book me on a direct flight to JFK, for the same Wednesday. And she explained to be that Virgin were committed to getting people to their destinations whenever it was safe.

Wednesday came; the American Flight was cancelled (as were many other American flights to the east coast) while every single Virgin Flight on the same routes flew.

I got home to a very happy wife and dog. Many of Americans customers are still trapped around the world.

I like American Airlines; I’ve flown over a million miles with them. I like them for their powerful network across all of the US. I now understand why their staff are often so miserable. It must be terrible to follow rules, which are purely financially motivated, and not customer centric, and I’m sure these same rules are just as draconian for the staff.

I don’t believe the Virgin staff is any better than the American staff, but they sure are happier.

I’ll still fly American, but when I have a flight option between American and Virgin on a route, and all other things are equal I’ll choose Virgin.

Hurricane Sandy has had a huge impact on many of my friends and family. Many people I know are still without power, water and heat. Natural disasters are horrible, but this is no excuse for deregulated airlines to put finance ahead of their duty of care to their customers. While safety cannot be compromised, every person who was able to travel home opened up a hotel room on long island and Manhattan for people who are without a house, and getting people home to their families increased the help people in need were able to get. Virgin should be very proud of the way they handled them responsibilities, and while I’m sure they had a financial motivation, they still did the right thing.

That’s the power of regulations!


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