Overbooking bugs budget-air travelers

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PASSENGERS of a budget airline disembark on the tarmac of Legazpi City’s airport. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO/NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

When Roxanne Lu bought a regular-price round-trip ticket from Manila to Caticlan, she did not imagine that a vacation in Boracay could end on anything less than a pleasant note.

On May 7, Lu went through what can be described as any traveler’s worst nightmare, short of a plane crash.

‘Bullying’

Lu chronicled her ordeal in a note titled “Airline Bullying” on Facebook.

According to her account, the airline—AirPhil Express—tried several times to move her to a different flight for reasons that were never adequately explained to her.

“There were at least two serious occasions where they blatantly lied to me just so they could bump me to a later flight,” Lu said.

At one point, the airline’s staff said she could not be rebooked on an earlier flight back to Manila because that flight was being rerouted to Masbate—a claim she later found out was a lie.

Bittersweet

Exasperated and after crying several times, Lu did finally get on her 8:20 a.m. flight back to Manila—the one that was supposedly rerouted to Masbate. But she said the “win” was bittersweet.

“Although I fought hard and ‘won,’ it doesn’t change the fact that I have been victimized by the cunning deception and unprofessional service of Air Philippines and (affiliate) Philippine Airlines (PAL),” Lu said in her note.

“I want them to own up to what they put me through and explain to me all the vague points/claims made. I would appreciate an apology, sure, but at this point, I just want the PAL management to know and learn from this case,” she said.

AirPhil probe

Jane Llanes, media affairs group vice president for AirPhil Express’ parent firm, San Miguel Corp., declined to issue a comment on the matter. She said the company was aware of the Lu incident, but would not give a reaction before completing a proper investigation.

Lu’s case came a day after the  brawl between radio host and Inguirer columnist Ramon Tulfo and several men, including actor Raymart Santiago, at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) Terminal 3. The brawl stemmed from Santiago demanding that Tulfo surrender the cell phone he used in taking photos of the former’s wife, actress Claudine Baretto, berating a Cebu Pacific employee for some off-loaded baggage.

Birthing pains

The brawl highlights, among other things, what many perceive as the insensitive business practices of local budget airlines.

For AirAsia Inc., the country’s newest budget carrier, such cases were part of birthing pains for the budget airline industry in the Philippines.

“I can understand the frustration of passengers,” AirAsia  president and CEO Marianne Hontiveros said in an interview.

While not commenting on Lu’s ordeal—opting not to openly criticize a competitor—Hontiveros said passengers had become accustomed to a market that for decades was monopolized by the full-service flag carrier PAL.

Tourism’s driving force

Hontiveros said the budget airline industry, which made air travel more affordable for millions of Filipinos, was the single-biggest driving force for the domestic and international tourism industry over the last decade.

“If we didn’t have budget airlines, air travel and tourism would not be as robust,” Hontiveros said.

Data from the Manila International Airport Authority showed that 29.8 million passengers passed through Naia’s four terminals in 2011. This was up by more than half from the 18 million Naia passengers in 2007.

Complaints surge

This growth, however, has come at a cost.

The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) said it had seen a significant rise in passenger complaints this year—nearly all of them directed at budget airlines.

The regulator said most of the complaints involved flight delays, a result of congestion at airports, and denial of boarding of passengers who arrived late.

While full-service carriers like PAL tried to pamper their passengers as best they could, Hontiveros said budget carriers were more straightforward with their services.

“We are required to deliver safe, reliable, on-time travel for passengers who just want to get from point A to B. We want them to be safe and comfortable at the lowest cost possible,” Hontiveros said.

“But over and above that, if they want the flexibility of rebooking flights even if they miss their planes and other frills like that, they should go full service,” she said.

Lapses

The country’s largest budget carrier, Cebu Pacific, acknowledged  that at times, it was guilty of lapses in terms of dealing with irate passengers.

“I’m not saying that we are perfect. There are lapses sometimes,” said Candice Iyog, Cebu Pacific vice president for marketing and distribution.

But in most cases, what most people considered insensitivity on the part of the airline, the company saw only strict and fair adherence to corporate rules. Iyog noted that many complaints of passengers being denied boarding pinned the blame on the industry practice of overbooking of flights.

“That’s a misconception. Most of the time, it’s because passengers come in late for their flights. In those cases, we have to be firm with our rules,” Iyog said.

In 2009, Cebu Pacific implemented a set of rules that said passengers who arrived late for their flights would forfeit their tickets.

The company explained that allowing the rebooking of tickets of passengers who missed their flight, at little to no extra cost to that passenger, would mean selling two seats on different planes for the price of one.

Seats highly perishable
“But we treat seats as highly perishable products,” Iyog said. “People have to understand that it’s really hard to make money in this business. The common joke is that owning an airline would make you a millionaire—but only if you start off as a billionaire,” she said.

She said being firm in the implementation of rules was vital for any airline that hopes to sell affordable tickets to the public.

When passengers are bumped off from flights because of overbooking—which is done to compensate for “no-shows” expected on most flights—Cebu Pacific always tries to make up for its mistakes, Iyog said.

“We book passengers on the next available flight. On top of that, we also give them a round-trip ticket free of charge to make up for the inconvenience,” she said. If passengers opted not to be rebooked on the next flight, their tickets were refunded, Iyog said.

She said the practice of overbooking was not applied to all flights. “We have revenue management people who look at historical load trends and behavior of passengers on certain days to determine which flights can be overbooked and which ones cannot,” she said.

“For example, we know that for early morning flights, there are some passengers who fail to wake up. But we also know that on weekend flights to popular destinations like Caticlan, everybody shows up. So, those flights are rarely overbooked,” she said.

Read fine print

Part of the blame, Iyog said, should be pinned on the failure of most passengers to read the fine print when buying their tickets.

She said passengers should take time reading the terms and conditions of plane tickets they buy.

“We put those conditions in our print ads. And whenever passengers buy tickets online, we require them to accept these terms. But I think a lot of people just click the ‘accept’ button without reading the terms,” she said.

Hontiveros agreed, saying that passengers, too, have a duty to keep themselves informed. She said budget airlines could not afford to make compromises that would put further pressure on their already slim profit margins.

(Paolo G. Montecillo is an Inquirer reporter covering the transportation and communications beat.)

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