Wednesday, 2 December 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 8

Hyderabad, Telangana (India) - Siem Reap (Cambodia)

How do you get to, or from, Hyderabad?

From the first season of The Amazing Race, choices of airlines, routes, and connections were often decisive in the order of finish, and scenes in travel agencies, at airline ticket counters, and debating choices of airlines and flights figured prominently in the reality-TV show.

But in recent seasons, it's become more and more common for the TV producers to pre-book all of the contestants on the same flights, or to choose routes where limited airline routes and flight frequencies made it almost inevitable that the racers would all end up on the same flights. All of the contestants on The Amazing Race 32 have been on the same flights on almost every air leg of their journey so far, including from Almaty (ALA) to Hyderabad (HYD) and again from Hyderabad via Bangkok (BKK) to Siem Reap (REP).

I can only assume that the TV producers have decided that most viewers aren't interested in "airport fu". For real-world travellers, however, the task of choosing airline routes and connections has become more and more challenging.

Until the present pandemic, the number of international routes with direct flights, and the number of connection options on routes without direct flights, has steadily increased and come to include less and less intuitively obvious possibilities.

To take a domestic US example, shortly before the pandemic I flew from Houston (IAH) to San Francisco (SFO) via Aspen, Colorado (ASE). No, I wasn't going to Aspen, just changing planes. That's not an obvious routing or connection point, or one that most booking robots would suggest. But the direct flights that day were sold out, the flights in and out of Aspen were half empty (despite a long list of people standing by for the sold-out IAH-SFO direct flights), and it was an easy connection -- much easier than changing planes in Denver or some other large "hub" airport.

Internationally and on intercontinental routes, it's even more complicated. New smaller-capacity long-range planes have made non-stop long-haul flights operationally feasible and economically viable on routes between airports with less traffic, including those that aren't major hubs.

Twenty years ago, getting to or from a "provincial" city in India such as Hyderabad would have required connecting through Mumbai (BOM), New Delhi (DEL), or perhaps on a smaller number of airlines and routes through Kolkata (CCU) or, in South India, Chennai (MAA). Just as, earlier still, getting from most places in the US to Europe would have involved connections via New York, Washington, or Chicago, or to Asia would have required connecting through Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.

Now both Air India and United Airlines are planning to start the first nonstop flights ever between the USA and South India in 2021. These flights won't be to or from Chennai but between Bengaluru (BLR) and San Francisco -- the longest nonstop route operated by any US-based airline and the fourth-longest nonstop flight operated by any airline in the world. Air India has also scheduled the first-ever nonstop flights between Hyderabad and the US, to operate to and from Chicago (ORD) starting next month.

These aren't routes you would necessarily expect, much less during a pandemic (although the pandemic is probably making some travellers willing to pay more to avoid the risks of infection while changing planes). Neither HYD nor BLR is a major airline hub. It might soon be the case, however, that someone flying to or from Chennai (the birthplace of Amazing Race 32 cast members Aparna and Eswar, who got to the finish line in Siem Reap last and were eliminated at the end of this episode) might find themselves connecting via BLR or HYD, instead of vice versa as in years past.

Further complicating air travellers' route-finding difficulties, a larger and larger proportion of flights, including even some long-haul flights, are on airlines that don't participate in interline ticketing agreements with other airlines or the shared databases of the computerized reservation systems that drive most flight and fare comparison and booking Web sites. Few of those sites allow you to build an itinerary segment by segment to include connections between different airlines or at places that haven't been programmed into their routing algorithms.

Figuring out how to get to or from Hyderabad today, tomorrow, next month, or next year, during or after the COVID-19 pandemic, would be even more difficult. While it is possible to spot some trends and make some predictions about pandemic and post-pandemic travel, it's too early to say which airlines will go bankrupt, whether or how they will be reorganized, what new airlines will start operating with planes repossessed by lenders or bought at bankruptcy liquidation or foreclosure auctions, or where either old or new airlines will fly. Airline route maps and plans are being redrawn every day, and are unlikely ever again to look exactly like they did before the pandemic. How they will be different, nobody (including airline managers) can yet say with any certainty.

Future airline routes and flight frequencies will be shaped in significant part by political decisions about the amount and terms of government bailouts of airline investors and creditors and the conditions, if any, attached to those bailouts. The first round of US airline investor bailouts included requirements for certain levels of continued service, but it's unclear whether similar or different flight frequency or route conditions, if any, will be included in the proposed second round of US government payments to airline companies. Other governments around the world are making similar decisions about explicit or implicit conditions for new subsidies to national airlines.

Airlines covid-times political agendas aren't limited to demands for billions of dollars in government handouts. While fewer people are flying or paying attention to airline practices except those specifically related to COVID-19, airlines are working behind the scenes with captured, industry-friendly government regulatory agencies to make it even harder for travellers to enforce the minimal rights they have in the US as consumers, ticket purchasers, and flyers.

In this week's episode of industry-backed Federal rollback of consumer protections, the DOT issued a new rule late on the day on the Friday after Thanksgiving, obviously timing the announcement to minimize public notice. The new rule redefines the criteria and procedures for handling of complaints of "unfair and deceptive practices" by airlines.

The DOT sees its role as enforcing deregulation and policing against any encroachment on its "laissez-faire" policies toward airlines by state or other Federal agencies, rather than as enforcing consumers' rights. Federal law gives the DOT responsibility for investigating complaints and enforcing violations of the law which prohibits "unfair and deceptive practices" by airlines. The DOT can't change this law (that would take action by Congress, and ad frequent air travellers themselves, members of Congress are generally more sympathetic to air travellers' concerns), and can't explicitly refuse to accept or investigate complaints. But the DOT can issue regulations to "implement" the law by "clarifying" what it means and establishing administrative procedures for complaints, investigations, and enforcement proceedings.

The DOT already tries to minimize the number of formal complaints against airlines by not mentioning the formal complaint process anywhere on its Web site and by sidetracking aggrieved consumers into an alternative "informal" complaint process that merely refers complaints back to the airlines.

I was one of the first to call attention to the DOT's all-but-secret and almost-never-used formal complaint process, mentioning and describing it in both The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World and The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace. Economist, attorney, frequent flyer, and former Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman, with input from myself and others including members of the Flyertalk community, has published the first and to date only guide to How to file and pursue a consumer complaint against an airline - and the DOT "formal complaint" process. Mr. Edelman and others have begun filing formal complaints when they are victimized by some of the most systematically and egregiously unfair and deceptive airline practices and other violations of Federal laws and DOT regulations.

Most recently, for example, I reported on a formal complaint to the DOT by frequent flyer Mike Borsetti against American Airlines for violating the explicit requirement of Federal law and DOT regulations for airlines to make their tariffs available to the public. DOT is still sitting on that complaint, but in the face of a formal complaint -- publicly docketed and visible, open to public comment, and requiring an eventual formal, public assessment and decision by the DOT -- American Airlines partially backed down and restored its general international tariff rules (although not its tariff of fares or the rules of individual fares) to its Web site.

The new rules include new additional elements, not mentioned in the law, that must be proven before DOT will impose any sanctions for an "unfair and deceptive practice". The new rules also include new procedures for complaints, including new one-sided opportunities for airlines to demand hearings (prohibitively costly and burdensome for complainants) and to contest proposed sanctions before they are imposed. The new DOT rules are intended to discourage complaints by making them less likely to succeed, and to make it harder for the DOT to impose sanctions against airlines in the future, even if the DOT some day wanted to do so (as it generally hasn't to date).

This is, without any doubt, an airline protection rule, not a consumer protection rule. Both the proposed rule and the final rule were denounced by consumer advocates and members of Congress. Four Senators told the DOT "We urge the Department of Transportation (DOT) to stop promulgating rules that would hamstring its ability to protect aviation consumers.... Rather than implement regulations Congress specifically directed, DOT now seems solely focused on actually removing consumer protections." DOT brushed off these and the rest of the comments, and promulgated the final rule essentially unchanged.

One of the few comments made by airlines that wasn't adopted by the DOT in the final rule was a proposal by the airlines for the DOT to include provisions in this rule related to the privacy of personal information collected by airlines and travel agencies.

I've been calling for years for a Federal travel privacy law. In conjunction with other consumer organizations and in my testimony before the DOT Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protection (ACACP), I have urged the DOT to use its authority to enforce existing laws that (to at least some extent) protect air travellers' privacy.

So you might expect that I would welcome a seeming about-face by airlines that now claim to be seeking Federal regulation of their privacy practices. It turns out, however, that what the airlines really wanted from the DOT was a sham privacy rule, the key provision of which would have been "clarification" of exclusive DOT jurisdiction over airlines' and travel agencies' privacy practices, and explicit preemption of regulation of those privacy practices by any other Federal agency including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

FTC privacy regulation and enforcement has been weaker than it should have been, but still better than nothing. The FTC has at least arguable (although ambiguous) concurrent (overlapping) jurisdiction with the DOT over some aspects of airlines' and travel agencies' privacy practices. At the ACACP hearing where I testified before the DOT, FTC privacy staff in attendance said they were willing to assist the DOT, which has none of the FTC's privacy expertise or experience -- but only if invited to do so by the DOT, which has no more interest in protecting travellers' privacy than in protecting any of travellers' other rights.

Apparently, airlines have now become sufficiently concerned about the possibility that the FTC might seek to assert its concurrent jurisdiction over airlines' privacy practices, and sufficiently confident of airlines' complete regulatory capture of the DOT, that they sought what they expected (probably correctly) would be a toothless fake privacy "protection" rule from the DOT as the price of, and pathway to, preemption of any possibility of privacy regulations or enforcement action against airlines by the FTC.

That the DOT declined this invitation to fake privacy rulemaking is a small victory, but only a partial victory. What is still needed, as I've been saying for more than 20 years, is explicit, sector-specific Federal privacy legislation explicitly applicable to airlines, travel agencies, and computerized reservation systems.

President Trump is, of course, the former owner of a failed airline, and is predisposed to instruct and expect his appointees to favor his fellow airline owners (as well as, of course, to favor hotel owners including himself). But the capture of the US Department of Transportation by the airline industry, so that the DOT has functioned as an industry-protection agency rather than a consumer-protection industry, dates back to the preemption provisions of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, at the dawn of neoliberalism, and has continued through Republican and Democratic administration alike. There is no reason to expect that things will change or that this deep-rooted problem will be addressed by the Biden Administration unless air travellers organize to demand change.

Minimal but far from sufficient first steps would be for the Biden Administration (1) to rescind this latest DOT rule and (2) to propose legislation (A) to act on the near-unanimous request of state Attorneys General to repeal the Federal preemption of state truth-in-advertising and other consumer protection laws as they apply to airline ticket sales, and (B) to protect air travellers' privacy.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 2 December 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
Comments

Regarding your "airport fu" comments... Back in 2009 my company sent me to a conference in South Korea, and I was able to take a couple weeks vacation in China beforehand. Starting and ending in Seoul, I wanted to hit Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong. After trying the US flight aggregator sites - I could fly to all those cities, but I was looking for something less expensive than what Orbitz came up with - I saw a column you had written not too long before about Amazing Race travel on a China leg, and you had mentioned a couple of non-US based aggregators that ultimately helped: ctrip.com (now part of trip.com) and elong.net. I tried a travel agent, too, but those sites got me better flights than he was able to find. I ended up flying Asiana from ICN-PVG, Hainan Airlines from SHA-PEK, and Cathay Pacific from PEK-HKG and HKG-ICN. I was more interested in price at the time than maximizing points on whatever airline alliance Continental was in at the time, and none of those were available via Orbitz (or if they were, I got a better price on ctrip/elong).

I'm one of those travelers where price is usually the deciding factor on who/where/how I get from point A to point B and where I stay. But as a solo traveler, wading through all of those choices is part of the fun of travel in the first place. What times to the planes and trains arrive and leave, which hotel has good ratings AND is in my price range AND is in a good location, how to arrange what I see and where I go to be geographically clustered, etc.

Posted by: MRG, 7 December 2020, 19:53 ( 7:53 PM)
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