Friday, 11 September 2015

Air travel predictions come true: luggage locks and interline ticketing

Two predictions I made a decade or longer ago have come true this week, one about the farcically insecure "TSA-approved" luggage locks, and the other marking a much more significant milestone in the anti-consumer balkanization of the airline industry.

(1) Master keys for TSA-approved "Travel Sentry" luggage locks made public.

Back in 2003, when it first became public that the TSA would be cooperating in a "key escrow" system in which air travellers would only be allowed to use locks on their luggage if those locks were certified as being openable with one of a small set of master keys that would be provided to every TSA checked- baggage "screener", I wrote as follows:

Whatever its purposes, such a key or code escrow program is also idiotic and insecure: the tools or codes needed to open the special locks will be available to thieves (even those thieves who aren't also TSA employees) almost as soon as the master keys and opening instructions are disseminated to tens of thousands of TSA inspectors.

Who knows how quickly thieves (other than TSA screeners, airline staff, and contractors, who have repeatedly been caught pilfering valuables from checked luggage) got hold of "Travel Sentry" master keys or copies.

But now photos and an official guide to each of the master keys have been made public. From the photos (making working keys from photos is easier than you might think), control files have been created, made public, and demonstrated to produce working plastic master keys using an entry-level 3D printer.

And if you really want to tweak the TSA, you can even get a T-shirt depicting a full set of TSA master keys.

The master keys can't readily be changed, since more than 10 million locks a year, each made to be opened by one of these seven keys, have been sold since 2003 -- an installed base of close to a billion dollars worth of locks at retail prices.

For what it's worth, the "Travel Sentry" industry consortium that has the exclusive deal with the TSA for locks that can be opened with these master keys also advertises that it has provided the same set of master keys to aviation "security" agencies at airports in South Korea, Israel, Canada, Finland, and Austria.

As I pointed out when I first wrote about the inherent insecurity of this "key escrow" system, the real protection for checked airline luggage is not lock technology but the law of strict liability for common carriers of cargo, including checked luggage:

Currently, the TSA claims that it isn't liable to passengers for damage to locks or luggage when it breaks into bags. That's generally true, but that doesn't mean passengers are out of luck, or that the TSA isn't liable to the airlines.

It works like this: In most cases it's the airline, not the TSA, who accepts the bags from the passenger and is responsible for them until they are returned to the passenger in good condition. Passengers whose bags are damaged, or locks broken, should pursue their claims with the airline, in small claims court if necessary, even if the airline says that it isn't responsible because the damage was done by the TSA.

If a passenger consigns their bag to the airline, and receives it back damaged, the airline is liable to the passenger. Whether the airlines can collect from the TSA in such cases remains to be litigated, but but that's not the passengers' problem, and doesn't affect the liability of the airlines to passengers for the damage.

That advice remains true, and equally important, today.

(2) Major airlines in rival "alliances" ending interline ticketing agreements.

In a 2005 column about airport-fu in The Amazing Race, I called attention to little-noticed steps being taken by major airlines to cut back on their "interline ticketing agreements".

Over the last year major airlines have begun taking drastic measures to restrict the ability of travellers to get through interline tickets, even if they somehow figure out ... that they can do better by combining flights from several, not necessarily "allied" airlines, rather than limiting themselves to just one airline or even just one alliance....

The likelihood is that within a few years the current globally integrated ticketing system will be replaced with a significantly balkanized one, in which "alliances" or marketing consortia issue incompatible tickets.... On the cutting edge of this trend, Continental Airlines took the first step a year ago by terminating more than 50 of its interline agreements...

The unwinding of the interline ticketing system began with the termination of most of the agreements between large airlines and smaller ones. (Which is bad, as I explained at the time, and tantamount to "redlining" of places deemed peripheral by wealthy airlines.

The end game will be the breakdown of interline agreements between large, wealthy members of rival global airline alliances -- beginning with the announcement yesterday that American (Oneworld) and Delta (Skyteam) are ending their decades-old interline ticketing (and, I presume, baggage) agreements on 15 September 2015.

American claims that customers won't suffer, even when there are problems: "We have more ability to re-route our customers during operational disruption than any other airline in the world." But that's a lie: An airline with interline agreements with all of its major competitors has far more ability to re-route customers than an airline that has limited its options to the members of a single alliance (most of the other members of which probably operate in other regions of the world).

When something goes wrong, the most important and valuable interline agreements for travellers are those between direct competitors, as I pointed out when this issue first emerged:

Even passengers who don't plan to fly on multiple airlines benefit from interline ticketing agreements: without such an agreement in place, one airline can't "endorse" its tickets to another airline in the event of a flight cancellation, delay, missed connection, or overbooking.

As more and more alliances coordinate their schedules to reduce duplication between alliance members airlines' route systems, it becomes more and more likely that the only alternate flight, if yours is cancelled, will be on a competing alliance. The result is to substantially reduce the likelihood that stranded passengers will be accommodated on the next available flight, even if it is operated by a competing airline (as is, obviously, in the passengers' interest) and increase the likelihood that they will be forced to wait for their original airline's (or one of its partners') next flight, as is obviously in the airlines' interest (since it costs an airline less to transport passengers on its own flight than to pay another airline to transport them).

There's more here on what happens when a flight is cancelled, diverted, or delayed. As I note in that article, and as the discussion above should help make clear, what's possible depends on which issued the ticket (the "validating carrier") and on with which other airlines it has interline agreements.

But the issuing airline is one of the details of actual tickets that are often missing from e-ticket confirmations, and interline agreement tables are a part of the tariff that is not usually made available to ticket purchasers. These are some of the reasons why it's important for the US Department of Transportation, and its counterparts in other countries, to enforce the requirements that airlines provide each ticket purchaser with a complete copy of their ticket and make the entirety of their tariff publicly available.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 11 September 2015, 10:34 (10:34 AM) | TrackBack (0)
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