Travelling Hopefully? Or Travelling Carefully? A Lesson from United Airlines

Travelling Hopefully? Or Travelling Carefully? A Lesson from United Airlines
April 14, 2017 Ben Leonard

United Airlines

‘It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive’ as the old saying goes. These days, it may make more sense to travel – and to book our holidays – carefully instead of hopefully, particularly with the recent United Airlines debacle.

Easter is here at last – and for some of us, that means a flight to the sun. For the vast majority of us, it at least means thinking about a flight to the sun. The summer holidays are inching slowly closer…

But the last fortnight has not seen much good news for travellers. True, fuel costs are down and this has led to the price of flights – and inflation – staying low. Even if we have paid a low price for our flight, holiday or hotel, though, can we really be sure that we have got the best deal and received accurate information from the travel website we booked on?

According to the European Commission’s consumer protection authorities, the answer is almost certainly ‘no.’

The European Commission’s report

The target of their fire is travel websites – with a specific complaint that sites that show ‘bargain prices’ for flights, holidays and hotels are not necessarily giving customers accurate information.

The EU’s report – based on screening in October 2016 which covered 352 sites across all 28 member countries – had four key findings:

  • In a third of cases, the first price shown was not the same as the final price to be paid
  • In a fifth of cases ‘promotional offers’ were not readily available
  • The way in which the final price was calculated was not clear in a third of the cases
  • And in a quarter of cases what they termed ‘prompts to scarcity’ – such as “only 2 rooms left” were misleading

“These websites are misleading consumers,” said Vera Jourova, the Czech politician who is the EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. She went on to say that the first price quoted was often a very long way from the final price and that 235 of the 352 sites screened by the EU would be required ‘to correct some problems.’

The EU want the websites to act like travel agents and respect EU rules – and if they fail to comply, national authorities could pursue legal action.

The report also cast doubt on customer reviews, saying that they were often unclear and that this “threw doubt on their truthfulness.”

But is this not just another case of 20th Century policies failing to keep up with 21st Century business practices? What are the EU going to do? You would think that a great many of these sites are hosted outside the EU, making the good intentions of Ms Jourova virtually meaningless.

Surely it is up to the buyer?

Should it not just be a case of buyer beware? After all, we are all adults and we all know that the glowing review may well have been written by the hotel owner’s wife. We have all booked flights where the final price was far higher: we have all looked at hotels and wondered if 19 people really were ‘looking at this room right now.’ Holiday website may not use the traditional squeeze page beloved of internet marketers, but they come very close.

Surely we have more important things to worry about? Like whether we have booked a flight on United Airlines…

The airline took a savage beating on social media this week after film emerged of possibly the worst piece of PR in business history, as a passenger was forcibly ejected from a flight.

The passenger was one of four who was removed from the Chicago to Kentucky flight  – in airline terminology ‘bumped’ from the flight. When he refused to give up his seat, he was very forcibly removed from the plane, as numerous viral videos have now shown.

Was United Airlines action legal?

was United Airlines action legal?

Can an airline do this to you? The answer is ‘yes they can.’ Airlines routinely sell tickets to more people than a plane can seat, counting on several people not to arrive. When there are not enough ‘no-shows’ – that is, when passengers are inconsiderate enough to turn up for the flight they booked – then the airlines first try to persuade, reward or bribe passengers to change their flight. This helps airlines to maximise their profits and can be lucrative to passengers who are flexible. But if no-one wants to change their flight and/or be bought off, then passengers get ‘bumped.’ It is rare – but it happens.

In 2016, United Airlines denied boarding to 3,765 of its 86 million passengers: an additional 62,895 passengers voluntarily gave up their seats. In very round figures, that gives you a 1 in 1,000 chance of being ‘bumped,’ voluntarily or involuntarily.

Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly explained the rationale behind the practice: “A bakery doesn’t want to have a lot of extra pastries at the end of the day that they have to throw out. To an airline, an empty seat is basically the same as stale bread. It’s something they can never sell again.”

So United may have used extreme force to save one seat in a thousand in order to maximise profits. CEO Oscar Munoz may have tried to deflect the blame on to the passenger, saying that he was “disruptive and belligerent.” The world has clearly taken a different view, with more than $1 billion wiped off United’s stock market valuation.

The lesson of both these stories is simple: if you are booking a holiday, flight or hotel you need to shop around. Do not rely on a website to do it for you, irrespective of how appealing their adverts are. Remember that the website gets paid when you buy a holiday or leave your e-mail address. It is a business, just like any other, and it is a business that may well be based a very long way from any useful jurisdiction.

…And when you travel, know your rights. It may seem astonishing that an airline can use physical force to eject you from a seat that you have paid for, but they can. It is right there, at the bottom of page 23 of the booking conditions, in the very small print. And be aware if you have bought a cheap ticket, you are almost certainly a far more likely candidate to be bumped than the frequent flyer sipping the complimentary champagne.

But it is Easter: let me leave you on a lighter note, with some of the funniest lines from the hashtag ‘New United Airlines Mottos’ on Twitter…

Our prices are unbeatable. But not our customers

We put the hospital in hospitality!

Pre-flight boarding to waterboarding, we have it covered

Fight or flight

…And, by common consent, the winner: If you can’t seat ’em, beat ’em

Have a wonderful Easter and – if you are flying – we hope it is the dullest, most uneventful flight you have ever taken…

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