Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Why Do the Airlines Hate Us?
June 18, 2015 -- After nearly 40 years as a business traveler, this question haunts me: Why do airlines hate us? Why, in fact, do airlines seem to hate everyone? The people who distribute and book their tickets? The corporate travel managers who keep us flying? Travel agents. The people who make the luggage we carry. And, for all I know, attendants at the garages where airline bosses park their limos. I can't speak for parking-lot attendants, but the airlines have pissed off all those other folks in the last few weeks. And, once again, showed the world that they really despise us, the business travelers who fill their little tin boxes with billions of dollars each year. When the airline world gathered in Miami last week for the annual International Air Transport Association (IATA) meeting, everyone expected a real nice clambake and a choreographed rumble between U.S. and Gulf carriers. Instead, word came from Camelot that there'd a new legal limit to the size of our carry-on bags. If only we simple folk would carry cases that were about 25 percent smaller than the current allowable maximums, aircraft would become more congenial spots. "This is a program that's designed to make things easy for everybody, first and foremost the passenger," claimed IATA executive Tom Windmuller. Did Windmuller or any of IATA's 250 member airlines talk to a single passenger before making that assertion or promulgating the new "optimum size guideline"? Of course not. The organization simply decreed that's how conditions are. They'd reduce the size of carry-on bags and passengers would be required to go out an buy new luggage. But it wasn't meant to be. Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and others jumped in front of microphones and denounced the carriers. And an influential bagmaker, Rimowa of Germany, went public with its condemnation of airline industry hubris. "Once again, airlines find a way to make their problem the passenger's problem--and an expensive problem at that," travel analyst Henry Hartevelt, himself a former airline executive, explained shortly after the IATA decree. The blowback proved too much for IATA. Frightened by the revolt, several U.S. carriers immediately disavowed the move and IATA eventually issued a "clarification" insisting that its guidelines were merely a suggestion. And on Wednesday, it officially spiked the proposal. But a word to the wary frequent flyer: When next in the market for a carry-on bag, consider one that meets IATA's ghost protocol. In the meantime, the money you won't spend immediately on new luggage may have to go to Lufthansa and its subsidiaries, Brussels Airlines, Swiss International and Austrian Airlines. Why? Because the German carrier hates where you buy tickets and says it will charge you a 16-euro fee (about $18) for the privilege of flying one of its airlines. Lufthansa claims it spends too much money paying third parties--bricks-and-mortar and online travel agencies, travel-management firms and, especially, global distribution systems (GDS)--to write its tickets. As a result, effective September 1, if you want to book your ticket anywhere but a Lufthansa-owned or Lufthansa-approved website, you'll be hit with the 16-euro fee. Since third parties account for about 70 percent of Lufthansa's business, the move is a defiantly raised middle finger to all those intermediaries and, of course, the business travelers who rely on them. Oh, by the way, Lufthansa also admits it has no current ability to replace the third parties before September 1. If you want to fly the German carrier, book at the website — or pay up and shut up. (By the way, if you buy a ticket at a Lufthansa ticket counter or via telephone, you won't pay the new 16-euro fee, but you will pay a $20 convenience charge.) Even given that airlines hate their customers and the third parties who write tickets for them, the move comes at a strange time for Lufthansa. It's embroiled in a year-long fight with its pilots and has taken a dozen schedule-wrecking strikes in the last year. Its f light attendants are now threatening job actions, too. Its Austrian Airlines division suffered labor disruptions last year. And Lufthansa is still trying to win back passenger trust after the March Germanwings tragedy. Given these less-than-appealing realities, why would we pay Lufthansa 16 euros more than any other airline? (Other carriers are barred from charging a similar fee by their contracts with the GDS services.) Why, in fact, should we even consider the fee a reality given that this dispute is eerily similar to a fight American Airlines waged a few years ago? Logic dictates that Lufthansa's proposed fee will disappear as soon as it and the GDS firms negotiate deals that lower costs for the German carrier and its subsidiaries. After all, that's what happened in the 2011 American dispute. In the meantime, however, the question remains: Why do airlines hate us and demand we pay for their intramural disputes? Of course, no discussion of airlines hating on customers is complete without United Airlines. You have surely heard about last weekend's nightmare when a United flight from Chicago to London diverted to Goose Bay, Canada. Nearly 200 passengers were held for almost a full day in an unheated military barracks and given virtually no information about their fate. And no story about the incident was published without mention of an insulting tweet from United's social media team that belittled passengers' complaints. In fairness to United, it's unwise to question a captain's decision to divert a flight if he believed the aircraft was not airworthy. And central Labrador is hardly Bali Ha'i. By my count, there are fewer than 150 accommodations available for transients. United probably had no choice but to warehouse the flyers in the barracks. But United's disdain for customers — and its own corporate image — is underlined by how little information the stranded flyers received and how long United left them in Goose Bay without transportation. And United's post-incident spin has been horrendous: No explanation from a top executive, no real apology or believable expression of remorse, skimpy compensation for the displaced flyers and no tangible information of why the aircraft was diverted. In other words, United hates us. All the airlines do.
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