Skift Take

It's reasonable to ask whether airline re-accommodation agreements still make sense in 2018. In how many industries will one company happily hand you over to the competition after a slight service hiccup? But road warriors love these deals. It means they can get home, or to an important meeting, even when their favorite airline screws up.

American Airlines is making it tougher for average economy class passengers to reach their destinations when the carrier delays or cancels flights for maintenance, weather and other reasons.

According to American’s new policy, first reported by the blog, View From the Wing, American no longer permits airport agents to rebook coach passengers on competitors during what are called irregular operations. American agents may still put coach passengers on the airline’s partners, such as British Airways or Japan Airlines, but that isn’t helpful for most domestic itineraries, as American has just one larger partner in the United States, Alaska Airlines.

American is allowing agents to rebook the airline’s best customers — elite frequent flyers — on United Airlines and Delta Air Lines and other non-parnters airlines. American’s highest-level flyers can rebooked amidst short delays, according to the policy, while other elite flyers must wait for a five-hour delay. Customers seated in premium cabins also will have an easier time with rebooking.

An American spokesman said the policy is flexible, and noted other airlines also have intricate rules for when they place customers on competitors. The spokesman said an agent may make an exception if American has only one flight per day, or if a missed connection requires an overnight stay. American will also rebook members of the military on orders and unaccompanied minors on non-partner airlines, as well as customers “traveling for a funeral, weddings, surgery, [or] starting a cruise,” according the the policy.

Many passengers aren’t aware most legacy carriers have long-standing agreements to carry each other’s passengers when their operations fail. But frequent flyers usually know, often asking agents to rebook them at the first sign of trouble. Airlines pay each other at a reduced rate, but because the Big 3 U.S. airlines send customers back-and-forth-every day, it’s usually not that expensive for any carrier. It can get pricey, however, if one airline sends more customers to the competition than the other sends back.

Relics of the Past?

In some ways, these re-accomodation agreements a relic of a bygone area, when airlines had more maintenance delays than they today, and fewer of their own flights available for displaced passengers.

American is the world’s largest airline with 6,700 flights a day, but as recently as 2012, before its merger with US Airways, it had just 3,400. That meant it had far fewer options for customers when it delayed or canceled flights.

Even before this newest wave of consolidation, airlines have been reexamining whether they need the agreements. Airlines that started after U.S. de-regulation generally do not have the agreements, including Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines. They rebook passengers on their own flights, or offer passengers a refund and ask them to rebook themselves. On rare occasions, they may buy a ticket for a customer on another airline, at full price.

Still, some analysts have asked f the three big legacy carriers can use the policies to their advantage. Since low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers sometimes have trouble taking care of customers when they delay or cancel flights, American, Delta and United could use their re-accomodation agreements as a service differentiator.

But American chose a different approach, Brett Snyder, an industry analyst who writes the Cranky Flier blog, said in a post Tuesday.

“We’re left with a policy that reminds the casual traveler how unimportant they are to American,” he said. “I can understand this policy applying to Basic Economy since that is a pure price play. But if someone is going to pay for a regular coach ticket, then getting to the destination as soon as possible should be a basic benefit, even if it involves flying other airlines.”

Delta Not Copying

This is not the first time American has taken a tough stance on re-accomodation agreements.

In 2015, American canceled its agreement with Delta, arguing the terms Delta wanted were too onerous. At the time, American was sending more passengers to Delta than Delta sent back, so it was costly to American.

In January, the two airlines resumed the agreement, and American agents again have access to Delta seats.

In an email Wednesday, Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said Delta prefers to rebook passengers on its partner airlines, but will send passengers to American when needed. That includes coach passengers, he said.

“The approach at Delta is pretty simple: give our people the autonomy to do what’s right for the customer,” Durrant said. “In the uncommon circumstance where we do have a Delta flight cancellation, we look to other Delta flights first for reacommodation; then to partner airlines; and, finally, competitor airlines when necessary via re-acommodation agreements. And it’s done regardless of booking class or fare product.”

United has also instituted stricter controls about when its agents can rebook passengers on competitor airlines, but still permits it, United spokeswoman Maddie King said. “The easy answer is yes. We rebook customers on other airlines.”

Still, like American, United has strict limits for economy class passengers without elite frequent flyer status. Generally, United only will book customers on the competition if the delay or cancellation is the airline’s fault and will result in an overnight hotel stay, King said.

“However, our employees are empowered to make exceptions when it makes sense, such as with unaccompanied minors, customers with disabilities or when a customer is traveling for a major life event,” she addd.

This story was updated with more complete information about United’s policy. 

November 16, 2022
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Tags: airline innovation, american airlines, delta air lines, united airlines

Photo credit: American Airlines passengers check in at Philadelphia's airport. American is making it tougher for coach passengers to rebooked on other airlines. Skift