Passenger protection

At last, a law to protect passengers against airline companies’ unfair policies and practices is in place. After three public hearings attended by airline representatives and consumer groups, the “bill of rights for air passengers and carrier obligations” was approved on Dec. 3 and signed on Dec. 10 by Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya and Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo. It takes effect on Dec. 21, in time for the influx of balikbayan and tourists for the yearend holidays.

The bill of rights sets guidelines on overbooking, rebooking, ticket refunds, cancelled and delayed flights, lost luggage, and misleading ads on fares—the top causes of passenger complaints since air transport was liberalized in the country in 1995. It stipulates airline obligations in cases of death and bodily injury, and an express lane for persons with disabilities and senior citizens. It covers both local and foreign carriers.

“There is a need to infuse a certain measure of balance, fairness and reasonableness between the precarious position of passengers vis-à-vis the vast resources at the disposal of the air carrier,” the DOTC-DTI Administrative Order No. 1 reads in part.

Data from the Civil Aeronautics Board show that air passengers filed 81 complaints in 2011, up from 77 in 2010. Of the complaints, 45 percent involved a demand for a refund; 14 percent, unfair practices, negligence of personnel, and “insensitive” treatment of affected passengers; 10 percent, cancelled flights; 7 percent, delayed flights, denied boarding, and lost luggage; and 3 percent, misleading ads. The number of complaints is actually higher as many air passengers vent their inconveniences in social media like Facebook or Twitter. Another major venue for passenger complaints is the London-based Skytrax, reputedly the world’s leading airline and airport review site. It is often cited as “the voice of the world’s airline passengers,” with its Passengers Choice Awards voted by more than 18 million air travelers from about 100 countries in 2011.

One infamous incident in local air travel involved the airport tiff between celebrities that stemmed from a local budget airline’s decision to load one party’s luggage on a different flight, causing the initial anger of that party against the airline staff, which the other party witnessed—and recorded.

A local carrier also came under fire this year after the House of Representatives was asked to look into that airline’s treatment of persons with disabilities. The request for an inquiry was made following reports that a passenger, a leg amputee, had chosen to crawl down the airplane ramp at Singapore’s Changi airport instead of paying the fee for the wheelchair lift. In 2010, a local carrier was similarly accused of discrimination for refusing to allow a “special child” on a flight, citing a reported company policy of not allowing more than one person with special needs at any given time on a plane.

Under the new travelers’ bill of rights, no passenger may be denied boarding unless there is a legal and valid cause, such as immigration issues, safety and security, health concerns, or nonappearance at the gate at the appointed boarding time.

For cancelled flights, an airline should notify passengers using public announcement or text messaging. Passengers should be given—for free—sufficient meals, hotel accommodation, transport from the airport, phone calls, texts, e-mails or first aid. Passengers may choose to rebook their flights without additional cost. Passengers affected by overbooking are entitled to the same benefits. In case the airline cancels the flight because of force majeure, passengers have the right to be reimbursed the full value of the fare.

Similarly, an airline should transport any off-loaded luggage on the next available flight, deliver it to the passenger either personally or to the residence, or risk paying P2,000 for every 24 hours of late delivery. After seven days of nondelivery, the luggage will be deemed lost and the passenger will be paid the equivalent of about P17,000.

For promotions such as the popular “one-peso” or “zero” fares, airlines are now required to include in their announcements all other incidental costs (airport taxes, fuel surcharges, etc.) to avoid shocking would-be travelers when they see the total cost of the tickets they had bought.

This bill of rights is late in coming, but now air travelers no longer have to endure insensitive airline staff, unfair booking policies, or delayed and cancelled flights. Consumers are finally armed.

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Tags: airline carrier obligations , airline passengers , bill of rights for air passengers , editorial

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