Who Participated in the Flight Status Information Discussion?

Flight Status Information generated good discussion.  From June 2 to September 13, there were 67 total comments on the issue post:

  • 50 were made by 42 users
  • 17 were made by Regulation Room moderators

Commenters included primarily people who identified themselves as air travelers. Seven commenters identified themselves as belonging to another interest group: one as a researcher/expert, two as working for a travel agent or global distribution system (GDSs), two as working for a US air carrier, and one as undefined “other.”

From September 13 to September 19, the Draft Summary was available for comment.  No one made suggestions for changes. During this period, the Regulation Room team reviewed the comments on the Flight Status Information issue post again; as a result of this review, some additional detail has been added to this summary.

General Concerns about Flight Status Information

Several commenters self-identified as frequent flyers.  At least four commenters recounted personal stories of driving through bad weather conditions because they were not notified of a delay/cancellation, or of waiting for hours at a chaotic airport because of untimely or nonexistent delay/cancellation updates.

Notifying Passengers of Flight Delays

Most commenters who addressed this issue agree that airlines should be required to give passengers better information about delays and cancellations, although one commenter would frame the question as “in which situations is notice required” rather than how early and frequently, and for what length of delay, notification should be given.  One commenter urges that airlines be required to include the primary reason for the delay in the notification.  By contrast, at least three commenters say that their airlines already adequately notify passengers when a flight is delayed or canceled, and one adds that he/she is usually able to get flight status information online without problems.  One commenter is concerned that a blanket notice rule will not be effective and may cause more problems because airlines are sometimes uncertain about how long a flight will be delayed.  Finally, one commenter believes that if customers are dissatisfied with an airline’s flight notifications, they should take their business elsewhere, giving the airlines an economic incentive to provide accurate and useful flight status information.

DOT’s proposal to require notification for delays of 30 minutes or more seems reasonable to many, but not all, commenters.  At least one commenter says that consumers should be notified of any delay.  Another suggests delays greater than 15 minutes, with 30 minute updates.  Other commenters favor a less onerous notification policy: At least three say that notification should be required only for delays of an hour or more.  One commenter says that the 30 minute cutoff is reasonable, but there should be more flexibility for “special circumstances” such as a technical issue causing breakdown of communications.

Commenters point out that travel time to airports, added to check-in congestion and time required to clear security, means that many travelers head to the airport two hours or more before their flight time.  This leads one commenter to speculate that perhaps airline resources should be concentrated on getting passengers information about delays of more than two hours.  One commenter who pointed out that notice of a 30-minute delay would likely not help passengers adjust their departure for the airport nonetheless supported the notification requirement because it would lower passengers’ frustration: “If I’m going to be treated like cattle, I’d just as soon be happy cattle.”  This commenter favors publishing airlines’ yearly on-time percentage and passenger satisfaction ratings.  (Another responded by pointing out that the on-time percentage is already available online.)  Many commenters agree that better status information is important not only for planning purposes but also because it reduces passengers’ feelings of frustration and uncertainty.

At least some of the disagreement about what length delay should trigger notice requirements seems to reflect the fact that commenters often do not separately address the value of information prior to their leaving for the airport versus its value once they are already at the airport.  Several recount stories of frustrating experiences of lack of information, vague information, or even misleading information while waiting for a flight in the gate area or elsewhere in the airport.

There was disagreement about airlines’ responsibility to advise passengers of general delays caused, for example, by weather.  Some commenters say that airlines should alert passengers that, for example, all flights are being delayed 1–2 hours by weather; at least one other commenter says that airlines should not have to give notice in situations where passengers ought to realize there will be weather-related delay.

Accuracy of Status Information

Several commenters are concerned about the accuracy of information about flight status.  Three worry about what would happen if passengers relied on the airline’s prediction of a 30 minute delay that turns out to be shorter.  Some commenters say that inaccurate status information is actually causes more problems than no information, especially if consumers are getting different messages from airport screen, online, and gate sources.  (See below.)

There was agreement with one commenter’s suggestion that airlines should be candid with travelers that they are unable to accurately estimate delay time, whenever this is in fact the case.  One commenter points out that some delays (e.g., because of late departure of the aircraft to be used on the flight) are easier to predict accurately than others (e.g., mechanical problems).

One commenter notes that airlines depend on the FAA for accurate delay-related information, and urges DOT Department of Transportation to consider whether FAA’s traffic management practices and procedures will inhibit airlines’ ability to give accurate and timely notice to passengers.  Another commenter argues that it would be more useful to spend time figuring out how to avoid delays in the first place, rather than focusing on how to notify passengers of delays.

Timing of Notification and Updates

Many commenters suggest that airlines be required to report status changes within 30 minutes after discovering that a flight will be delayed or cancelled.  At least three commenters would require notification “as soon as [the airline] know[s].”

One commenter believes that the problem is less the frequency of delay updates (which in his/her experience are often communicated instantly via airport screens) than it is the way airlines report the information.  Specifically, delays are often reported in small intervals (e.g. announcing, every 30 minutes, another 30-minute delay) when an extended delay is actually anticipated.  Thus, this commenter argues, the information passengers do get is not really useful.

Echoing this latter concern, at least six commenters specifically address notice of flight cancellations.  Some express concern and frustration that airlines are not being honest about cancellations.  One commenter complains that airlines sometimes insist a flight will not be canceled despite poor weather conditions, and then cancel the flight officially many hours later.  Others complain that airlines do not always abide by their promise to give periodic updates.  Passengers who rely on this promise may move to other areas of the airport to await an update, only to learn hours later that the flight was cancelled.

Methods for Notifying Passengers of Flight Status

At least seven commenters addressed how airlines should provide notice.  One argues that the methods should be standardized, with all airlines required to use them.  Several commenters emphasize that email and texting notification should be used.  One suggests that airlines could easily create an automated system to send email and text alerts.  Another commenter points out that that not all passengers carry cell phones and email devices, so airlines must also notify passengers via airport screens and loudspeakers.  At least three commenters say that airlines should utilize “all available methods” in communicating delays to passengers.  One commenter suggests that passengers should be able to specify their preferred method of notification when they purchase their tickets.

Several commenters, including one who self-identified as a frequent traveler, emphasize the importance of also requiring that information be communicated rapidly to all relevant airline employees and between airport and airline, so that the various information sources are giving passengers consistent information. Complaints about this include getting inconsistent information from reservation agents, gate agents, the airline’s phone or online flight status center, and the airport screens.

Which Carriers and Flights Should Be Covered

All commenters who addressed this issue favor applying the same requirements to all carriers and all flights, except for one commenter who suggests that foreign flights might be excluded from notification requirements. (This commenter gives no reason for making a distinction.)

Miscellaneous Points

Several commenters raised concerns and made suggestions more broadly around flight delays and cancellations.

One issue is availability of personnel to provide information and help passengers affected by delays or cancellation.  One commenter has experienced problems when flight schedule problems extend to “after hours,” when, in this commenter’s words, “nobody seems to be minding the store.” He/she suggests that personnel be required to continue working at the airport until the last flight of the day has arrived or departed, to assist consumers.  Another reports several experiences where rebooking after long flights delays had to be done through the airline’s reservation phone number because no one was staffing the customer service center or gates, and the automated kiosks were unable to process the change. He/she was charged for doing the change over the phone, although there were no other options.

Another issue is the root cause of delays and cancellations.  Several commenters discussed the extent to which delays and cancellations are within the carrier’s control.  On air traffic congestion, one commenter suggests that airlines now have incentives to fly more small planes (rather than fewer large ones) to carry the same number of passengers.  These incentives include  landing fees based on weight (which make it cheaper to land two lighter planes than one heavier one), and competitive concerns that push all carriers to offer frequent flights in the most desired times for business travelers.  This commenter suggests government restructuring of incentives:   landing charges primarily based on using a slot, with only some consideration to weight. Also, fees should increase at peak times of day, to encourage carriers to spread out their flights.  For related comments, see the Tarmac Delay Draft Summary.

Commenters also targeted policies and practices that make it difficult for passengers to act on information about delays or cancellations even when the information is available.  Some note that because of long baggage clearance and security lines, passengers are often told they must be at the airport 2 hours before their scheduled flight time.  Another explains that many airlines require passengers to arrive in-person at the airport to qualify for a refund or rebooking, so notification of a delay or cancellation would not avoid the need to go to the airport and wait in long lines for a rebooking/refund.  (A variation is a policy of imposing a service charge for rebookings/refunds made through the airline’s reservation phoneline, even when the change is necessary because of delays/cancellations.)  Two commenters favor allowing passengers to rebook their flights without charge when the flight is significantly delayed or canceled, and one favors forcing airlines to refund passengers for major delays and cancellations for reasons within the airline’s control.  One commenter questions the value of notification requirements so long as airlines are not required to rebook passengers onto another flight or another carrier’s flight.

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