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I rise in defense of Ann Coulter.
Well, okay, not exactly. The conservative firebrand’s “I hate Delta” Twitter tantrum over the weekend, after she was moved from an extra-legroom aisle seat she had booked and paid for, was unquestionably over the top. For ugly starters, she tweeted out (to her 1.6 million followers!) a snapshot of the woman who took “her” seat, a woman who had really done nothing wrong.
She hurled insults at Delta employees.
She dug up examples of other poorly-treated Delta passengers.
And when Delta hit back, noting that she still wound up in an extra-legroom seat (though a window, not an aisle), offered to refund her $30, and described her tweets as “derogatory,” “slanderous” and “unacceptable,” Coulter went back on the offensive, as is her wont.
So no, I’m not going to excuse the provocations of a professional provocateur. But I also couldn’t read her outraged tweets without thinking about the many times I’ve PREBOOKED AND PAID (as Coulter would put it) for tickets, only to arrive at the airport and discover that the seats I thought I had bought were not locked in after all, and that I would have to get a new seat assignment when I got to the gate.
Which, of course, meant waiting until virtually everyone else had boarded the plane (no room for your overhead luggage!), and worrying about whether the whole family would be able to sit together, and finally getting stuck in a middle seat in windowless row in the back with a stiff-backed seat—all the things I had been trying to avoid by PREBOOKING AND PAYING in advance.
Almost everyone who flies has similar stories, and many have experienced far worse. People get mad when that happens, and you can’t blame them. And their anger is too often aggravated by the refusal of the airline’s employees to at least explain why you’ve lost the seat you thought you had bought.
I am convinced, though, that this fairly common problem has a fairly straightforward fix. It requires two things. The first is government regulation. (Sorry, Ms. Coulter.) The second requirement is that the airlines need to start thinking about their seats in a different way—the way we passengers think about them. My fix, by the way, will also solve a secondary problem, overbooking. We’ll get to that shortly.
Have you ever read an airline’s contract of carriage—that is, the contract its passengers agree to when they buy a ticket? Here is the pertinent portion of United’s:
Seat assignments, regardless of class of service, are not guaranteed and are subject to change without notice. UA reserves the right to reseat a Passenger for any reason, including from an Economy Plus seat for which the applicable fee has been paid …
In other words, the airlines’ fine print—and they all have similar provisions—says that the purchase of a ticket doesn’t give a passenger the right to a particular seat, no matter how much he or she paid for it. They can move someone because there is a medical issue, or because they need to redistribute the weight on the plane—neither of which happens very often—or just, you know, because.
“United at one point was notorious for changing a passenger’s seat assignment if one of its Global Service members wanted to sit in that seat,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry expert who is a principal at Atmosphere Research. When I asked him why the industry would take a position that would seem so contrary to even the most elemental idea of customer service, he replied that the airlines don’t see themselves as being in the customer service business. “They want to be thought of as being in the transportation business,” he said. We, the customers, are essentially cargo.
The only way the airlines will ever change the language on their contract of carriage—and more importantly, their attitude that a seat assignment is more a hope than a promise—is if the Department of Transportation forces them to change it. The government should institute a rule saying that a ticket should not only get you the flight you chose but also the seat you chose.
What’s more, choosing a seat has to be a part of buying a ticket, so that no one gets to the airport without a seat assignment. That’s the way every other business that relies on ticket sales works—be it a baseball game or a concert—and there is no reason it shouldn’t be the same with an airline ticket.
Now, it obviously won’t work to have passengers getting their seat assignments in advance if they can then miss or skip flights with impunity. Some people would undoubtedly game the system by booking multiple flights and then choosing the most convenient one at the last minute. And even if that doesn’t happen, when people miss flights that means empty seats for the airlines, which means lost revenue. Indeed, airlines overbook because they know that on almost every flight a handful of people who have bought tickets won’t show up. It’s a technique for maximizing revenue.
So the third part of my plan is to eliminate both refundable tickets and those “nonrefundable” tickets that you can actually refund for a small penalty (which is the majority of ticket purchases). Yes, airlines have long had a policy of issuing vouchers when passengers cancel or miss a flight, but it’s counterproductive if your goal is to make seat purchasing more rational.
Just as the passengers should be able to count on getting the seat they’ve bought, the airlines should be able to count on the revenue produced when that seat is booked. Again, if you buy virtually any other kind of ticket, and for some reason you don’t wind up using it, nobody is going to give you your money back, or hand you a voucher to use some other time. The world doesn’t work that way.
In any case, there is a better solution than vouchers—and it is the final element of my plan. People’s plans do change, of course—all the time. But when circumstances arise that cause someone to miss, say, a baseball game, they can sell their ticket on the secondary market. There is no reason that wouldn’t work with an airline ticket. A robust secondary market for airline tickets would be a saner way to deal with people changing their plans than vouchers, exorbitant change fees, or overbooking.
Why doesn’t such a market exist? Mainly because the airlines hate the idea. Both Harteveldt and Joe Brancatelli, another travel expert who runs the website “Joe Sent Me,” told me that there have been, from time to time, efforts to start up a secondary market in the U.S. that have gone nowhere. But if the airlines are worried about losing the incremental revenue when a ticket bought a month before a flight for $200 gets sold three days before the flight for $500, there is a solution for that too: the airlines could run the secondary market themselves, and pocket a portion of the differential. That’s what baseball teams do, quite successfully.
Would there be complications to my plan that would need to be ironed out? No doubt. Any secondary market would have to adapt to the needs of the Department of Homeland Security, which would want to be sure that the people boarding the plane had their names on the ticket. The airlines would undoubtedly resist. There would still be times when an emergency would require someone to give up a seat he or she had bought. The new rules would have to take all that into account.
But such changes would be minimized. Passengers would have the certainty that they have a right to expect when they buy a ticket. And once everyone boarding a plane is guaranteed the seat of their choice, overbooking would end. After all, even the airlines aren’t so clever that they can sell the same seat on the same flight to two different people.
I wish I could say the airlines were moving in this direction, but they are doing just the opposite. Last week, Bloomberg’s Nikki Ekstein wrote a story about a new plan at United called “Flex-Schedule Program.” Part of the idea, it appears, is to be able to persuade people with lower-priced tickets to give up their seats—well in advance of the flight—to people who want to buy the same seat at a higher price. Those who agreed to do so would get a small voucher and a seat on a less desirable flight.
Joe Brancatelli believes that if this goes into effect, it will just be the beginning—that eventually the airlines will not ask people to switch planes, but insist on it. That would be in keeping with all the other changes passengers have seen over the past two decades. It’s exactly the kind of passenger-as-cargo mentality that infuriates customers. If the airlines want to shut up Ann Coulter—and all the rest of us who find air travel so frustrating—they need to change that mentality. Guaranteeing the seat you paid for would be a pretty good place to start.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg View columnist. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is the co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.