Monday, 22 June 2015

American Airlines claims it doesn't have to give you a ticket or tell you the fare for your trip

Closely related to airlines' efforts to escape their obligations as common carriers and to replace ticket pricing based on a published tariff with personalized pricing are their moves to escape their legal duty to provide each ticket purchaser with a "ticket".

In the days of paper tickets, there was no ambiguity as to whether the airline had given you a ticket when it confirmed your reservations. Airlines' own individual tariffs as well as IATA standards for interline ticketing specified the format of the ticket, with a separate "coupon" for each flight, and the information required to be included on it. Blank ticket stock ("accountable documents") was individually numbered and controlled, and contained physical security features like those on banknotes (paper money). Without the original ticket, you couldn't fly.

Despite the transition from paper tickets to electronic tickets, airlines continue to generate an essentially identical "virtual coupon record" (VCR) within the airline's reservation system for each ticket purchase, containing exactly the same information as used to be included on the paper ticket. All major airlines' tariffs define the VCR as being the "ticket" for all legal purposes.

American Airlines' International General Rules, for example, define "ticket" as follows (all caps as in the original, which is copied from the Sabre CRS in which the character set includes only capital letters):

TICKET MEANS THE "PASSENGER TICKET AND BAGGAGE CHECK," INCLUDING ALL FLIGHT, PASSENGER AND OTHER COUPONS THEREIN, ISSUED BY CARRIER, WHICH PROVIDE FOR THE CARRIAGE OF THE PASSENGER AND HIS BAGGAGE.

The problem is that while the airline has this record of the details of the ticket, the ticket purchaser no longer does. US Federal regulations (14 CFR 399.83) continue to require airlines to provide each ticket purchaser with a ticket, but that requirement has come to be almost universally ignored. Typical e-ticket confirmation notices contain only a small fraction of the information contained in the ticket.

Why does this matter? The airline can, and will, enforce the rules of the fare (as specified in the ticket) against the traveller. But without a ticket, and the information contained on it, a traveller has no way of knowing which provisions of the tariff apply, and thus cannot enforce those terms against the airline. And the airline, of course, has no reason to tell the traveller about information on the ticket that might benefit the traveller in a dispute with the airline.

As I said in comments I filed with the US Department of Transportation in 2010,

In the case of electronic tickets, industry standards and airlines' conditions of carriage define the "ticket" to consist of the "Virtual Coupon Record" (VCR), which contains all of the information previously included on paper tickets. But while a few airlines routinely provide purchasers with complete VCR images, and some others do so on request, many do not. [Fewer do in 2015 than did so when I filed these comments in 2010. - EH]

A complete ticket (or the VCR which constitutes the complete e-ticket) includes a variety of information which is important to purchasers but often omitted from e-mail confirmations:

  • The validating carrier, which may be the transporting carrier, a codeshare partner, or an entirely different airline in the case of interline or offline ticketing, and which may be vital to know in the case of changes, refund claims, airline bankruptcy, etc.;

  • The date and place of issue, which may determine when a ticket must be presented for refund or exchange, or the jurisdiction of claims related to the ticket;

  • The indication (in industry standards, by an "X" or "O" for each segment), of which transfer points are allowable stopovers and which are only connection points;

  • The fare calculation, including the fare basis for each segment, which are essential to determining the refund value of a partially used ticket, or the allowable routings and other governing provisions of the applicable tariff in case of cancellations or changes;

  • The breakdown of taxes and fees, which is essential to determining which of the "taxes and fees" are imposed by and passed on to governments, and from which agencies of which governments to seek refunds of what amounts in the case of user fees that may be refundable if tickets aren't used, and which fees are imposed by and retained by the airline, and should properly be considered part of the fare;

  • The "not valid before" and "not valid after" dates for each segment;

  • The free baggage allowance for each segment (note that this is already part of each industry-standard ticket, and allows specifying different allowances for each segment).

Where this information is held by the airline, and specifies the details of the contract between the airline and the ticket purchaser, there are good reasons to require the airline to furnish a copy of this information to each ticket purchaser. 14 CFR 399.83 should be retained and should be enforced.

I have been unable to find any record of enforcement action by the DOT against any of the airlines that have been violating DOT regulations by failing to provide complete tickets.

The issue is now before the DOT, however, as a result of a formal complaint against American Airlines (AA) by frequent flyer Mike Borsetti. Mr. Borsetti was overcharged by AA for several tickets, including charges for alleged "taxes" that exceeded the taxes actually imposed by governments. Aside form the overcharging and the misrepresentation of taxes, Mr. Borsetti's complaint explicitly raises the issue of AA's violation of 14 CFR 399.83. Without the fare calculation and tax breakdown contained in the tickets, Mr. Borsetti is still unable to tell exactly how much he was overcharged, or how much of a refund he is due.

In its answer to this complaint, AA makes no attempt to argue that it ever provided Mr. Borsetti with a ticket, as required by the applicable Federal regulations. Instead, it essentially argues that the rule requiring the airline to provide a ticket is obsolete and should be ignored by the DOT -- even though the transition from paper tickets held by the passenger to e-tickets held by airlines within their computer systems has made it more, not less, important, to enforce the requirement that each ticket purchaser receive a complete copy of their ticket.

I've filed comments with the DOT in support of Mr. Borsetti, explaining why it's important for the DOT to enforce this provision of its regulations and impose sanctions on AA. Any member of the public (that's you!) can file comments by clicking here. You can type a message in the form, or attach a text, word processor, or PDF file, and can give your name or comment anonymously.

You can read all of the comments others have submitted here.

Most regulatory proceedings like this draw no public comment at all, so even brief comments will be an important show of support. Tell the DOT that if the airline creates a ticket for you within its computer system (specifying in detail the terms of the contract by which you are bound, and by which the airline should also be bound), you are entitled to have a copy of it.

Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 22 June 2015, 06:20 ( 6:20 AM) | TrackBack (0)
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