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Technology is giving airline passengers the power to organise resistance to irritating practices

Overbooked: airlines face a web rebellion

Bernhard Warner,  Jul 30, 2008

If the aviation industry is truly on the eve of in-flight wi-fi connections, as we’ve been promised over the past few years, Lord help the airlines. The moment this technology becomes widely available in coach, you can expect a daily stream of disgruntled dispatches beamed down from 30,000 feet, filling blogs and online consumer forums with gripes about inedible food, puzzling delays and doubts about the whereabouts of the luggage.

In case you are wondering, yes, I am typing this column from 34,000 feet. But the Continental Airlines flight I have been shoe-horned onto has no such futuristic net connection. Instead, I have to wait to land in San Francisco in a few hours before firing off this column to my editor in London, giving Continental a few hours reprieve from a timely critique.

What has a number of us so perturbed on this flight is an old airline scam that Continental has pulled on us this morning. They’ve over-booked our 8.50 am Newark-to-San Francisco flight. For European travellers who are unfamiliar with over-booking, the practice may startle you. Simply put, America’s Federal Aviation Administration permits airlines to continue selling reservations on a flight long after the seats have sold out. (This is allowed only on flights that originate and terminate in North America.)

It’s the equivalent of buying a concert ticket online and showing up to the venue to find that ticket is not enough to get you in the door. If you want to see the gig, you have to wait outside and hope an uncaring arena employee can convince one of your fellow concert-goers to give you his seat. If you’ve come with a friend, you have to hope two people will give up their seats. Of course, such charity doesn’t exist on the perimeter of a sold-out concert venue, nor does it exist inside an airport terminal as rows are being called. Do-gooders of all stripes want to get to their next destination as soon as possible; to them, the desperate beggars on the sidelines are invisible. And because no sane person will give up his or her seat, no matter how forlorn the pleading party appears, a series of bribes are required to lubricate the negotiations.

Perversely, there are travellers I know who take great joy in being thrust into such situations. The power to say yes or no, while being dangled a $350 voucher, they feel, is a great rush. They have the power to spare a poor soul. Or, they can flick down an outstretched thumb and let the lions have their way with the miserable wretch, as they no doubt will recount later in the airport lounge to adoring strangers.

My wife, an Italian, had never heard of over-booking until this morning. She could not conceive that the same country that offers same-morning drop-off laundry services for $7.50 a load could so routinely stiff its air passengers. Our story happens pretty much daily in the US, aggravating frequent flyers everywhere. This time was unusually perverse, I thought. Two hours before check-in, we were informed at the counter that even though we had purchased our tickets four months prior (and my credit card was charged a few weeks after that), that the transaction merely guaranteed us “a reservation to fly, not a seat”. But we were in luck, we were told. We could be bumped to a later flight, depositing us in San Francisco ten hours after our initial planned arrival, and accept as compensation an unspecified percentage of what we’d paid. “Sometimes, it can really add up,” the airline rep informed us, uncannily channelling Agent Smith of Matrix fame.

That the American airlines have the FAA’s blessing to charge full price for seats that do not exist is a perversion of modern-day capitalism. Like Zimbabwe’s incalculable inflation rate, it requires a market dynamic that involves a truly powerless consumer base and ineffectual governance. It’s the kind of business practice that only a united consumer movement could defeat. Whether or not it starts at 30,000 feet is not important.

The recent explosion in online social media forums – from blogs, message boards, discussion forums and even YouTube – now enables the individual consumer to do more than just vote with his or her feet. They can publish for the world to see their positive and negative experiences with the brands in their lives, uniting disparate critiques, kudos and queries into a fuller picture of how a brand or industry is perceived by the public. These views are providing valuable insight that can better inform the general public and inspire change where change is needed. We’ve seen this in the UK with high street banks. The emergence of such forums as and ConsumerActionGroup have succeeded in keeping watchdogs like the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission, and the mainstream press, better informed about a series of questionable retail banking practices such as overdraft charges and the sale of payment protection insurance on loans which, at the very least, require more clarity in the marketplace.

The banking industry is hardly alone. The relative merits of retailers, carmakers, software developers and computer manufacturers are routinely dissected by consumers too, creating a powerful populist forum for change. The airline industry, with its many faults, is not immune from customer criticism either. In Europe this has informed discussions about the formation of an air traveller’s Bill of Rights. Sadly, the US is well behind such civil notions. Some timely critiques from 35,000-feet could begin to change all this.

Overbooked: airlines face a web rebellion

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