Washington, D.C. – Several consumer and business travel groups today urged U.S. airlines that plan to operate the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft to adopt traveler-friendly policies – in writing – providing concerned travelers with a variety of options when the plane returns to service. This morning the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an order that will enable the aircraft to return to service, certification of the aircraft by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is progressing, and the plane could be operating flights in U.S. airline schedules as early as next month.
The consumer and business travel groups, which include the Business Travel Coalition, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, National Consumers League and Travel Fairness Now sent a joint letter to the CEOs of Alaska, American, Southwest and United Airlines asking them to agree to a five-point “737 MAX 8/9 Passenger Protection Plan.” The five protections include:
- Allowing passengers concerned about flying on a 737 MAX 8 and 9 to change to flights operated with other aircraft without any financial penalties such as differences in fare with the ticket they already purchased, all the way up to departure time. This includes flights operated by the airline itself and those operated by that airline’s “code-share” partners.
- If no other aircraft is operated on a passenger’s itinerary, offering consumers the option of either a full refund or the ability to apply the full value of the ticket to a ticket to a different destination, without incurring a change fee, administrative fee or other financial penalty.
- If a consumer is concerned about flying on a 737 MAX 8 or 9 to a degree that they’d rather not travel at all, provide them with a full refund on a timely basis.
- Updating the airlines’ “Contract of Carriage” to reflect these changes and make them binding.
- Providing consumers and travel agents with easily viewable information on the type of aircraft that will be used to operate a flight in advance so that consumers have full knowledge of whether a flight being considered is being operated with a 737 MAX 8 or 9, well before making a decision to purchase an airline ticket on a specific flight.
“The circumstances surrounding the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 are unprecedented in the history of commercial travel and call for extraordinary protections for understandably concerned consumers,” said Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of Travel Fairness Now. “While we appreciate the initial accommodations that some airline officials have shared through public comments, we look forward to them formalizing those plans into binding commitments consumers can depend on before committing to purchase a plane ticket.”
In the U.S., there are four airlines that either operate or have ordered the Boeing 737 MAX – Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines.
“The Business Travel Coalition applauds airlines that have said they will allow passengers, fearful of flying a Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9, to rebook for free once they take to the air again,” stated founder Kevin Mitchell. “It represents a smart cost-neutral business decision for travel and procurement managers around the world as they grapple with a MAX 8 and 9 related ‘duty-of-care’ requirement of not knowingly placing employees in harm’s way. These accommodations, if followed by all MAX 8 and 9 operators, should facilitate travel policies that make booking a 737 MAX 8 and 9 a voluntary decision for travelers,” added Mitchell.
“Consumers shouldn’t be forced to fly on the 737 MAX or have to pay more if they don’t feel comfortable doing so,” said Susan Grant, director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at Consumer Federation of America. “If this plane is put back in service, it’s crucial for the airlines to adopt formal policies to accommodate consumers’ concerns.”
Last-Minute Aircraft Substitutions
Travelers may also be faced with airlines making close-to-departure aircraft substitutions, where a published schedule shows a flight operated with a plane other than a 737 MAX 8 or 9, and that aircraft becomes delayed or requires lengthy maintenance work. To prevent a cancellation or lengthier delay, the airline may decide to substitute the aircraft originally planned for the flight with a 737 MAX 8 or 9 instead.
“Many travelers now dread the thought of getting on a 737 MAX and understandably will go out of their way to book travel on another kind of aircraft,” said Linda Sherry, director of National Priorities for Consumer Action. “Having gone to the trouble of making their preferences known, these travelers should never face last-minute aircraft substitutions that would land them in a 737 MAX. We fully support strong, formal and transparent airline policies that give these travelers the right to switch to another aircraft when possible, paying no more than they did for the same type of ticket and class, or be given a full refund or credit if no alternative is available.”
“Both Boeing and the FAA have shaken the public trust, and the burden should not be on consumers who are rightfully concerned about the safety of this aircraft,” said John Breyault, vice president, Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud for National Consumers League. “Passengers should have the right to opt out of flying on the 737 MAX, and there should be no financial penalty for doing so.”
Many airlines engage in the practice of “code-sharing,” where they market flights operated by another airline as if it were their own, using the two-letter airline code on flights operated by different airlines.
The consumer and business groups recommend that travelers concerned about flying on a 737 MAX also check if flights operated by code-sharing partners airlines are using a 737 MAX. For example, while a U.S. airline on a passenger’s itinerary may not fly the 737 MAX, an international carrier that a passenger is connecting to might.
Airline Contracts of Carriage
An airline’s “Contract of Carriage” details all of the contractual details and obligations between a consumer and an airline when a plane ticket is purchased, including what the consumer is entitled to and may expect. Airlines sometimes use Contract of Carriage language to enforce rules, collect additional revenues and deny services. Unfortunately, these “contracts of adhesion” can be one-sided, confusing and do more to protect the interests of the airlines, not consumers.
Contact: Susan Grant, firstname.lastname@example.org