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Three True Changes: A Look At The Airlines' New "Customers First" Policy

(December 1999)

On Wednesday, December 15, fourteen airlines voluntarily launched an industry-wide program called "Customers First." Born out of a combination of political and consumer pressure on the airlines to reverse their reputation as having poor "perceived" service, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

The Customers First policy is not going to change the industry overnight, however. This initiative is more of a clarification of existing rules rather than an announcement sweeping changes. Three changes, however, will have a significant effect on the consumer

Baggage Liability

For the first time in 16 years, the minimum amount of money airlines are required to pay passengers for lost, damaged or delayed baggage on domestic flights will be doubled to $2,500.

This baggage rule does not apply to international flights, which are regulated by international agreements. On these flights, the minimum compensation limit is based on the weight of the baggage, with payment set at around $9.07 per pound.

Ensuring that you get the lowest fare

Airlines are promising to change the way they handle calls to their reservations centers. Airlines say that they will have their reservationists ask you questions to make sure you feel that you are receiving the lowest fare that they can offer over the phone.

Be advised: reservationists are not required to inform you about Internet-only special fares. You’ll have to seek those out on your own (you might want to check out Smarter Living's Internet-Only Rates!

When it comes to getting the absolute lowest rate over the phone, one airline is clearer than the rest of the pack on this commitment: US Airways. US Airways' Commitment No. 1 states: ''We commit to offer you the lowest fare available." US Airways' plan goes on to state that they will ''help you understand your eligibility for low fares by asking you questions about your travel plans.''

This means that US Airways realizes that not all customers understand that lower airfares can be found by changing the time or day they fly, or by flying into an alternate airport. US Airways has trained its rservationists to help the customer seek out all options to find the lowest fares. Other airlines aren't as clear or vigilant on this new low fare policy. Most carriers state that they will help you find the lowest fare for the date, flight and class of service requested. That's as far as they go, for now. Out of all the airlines, however, Southwest has the best ticketing policy. Southwest offers low fares that are sold on an unrestricted, fully refundable, and completely transferable basis, with no advance-purchasing requirement. No other airline comes close.

24 hour grace period on ticket purchases

In the past, you had to book a seat and pay for it immediately. Now, passengers will now be able to hold their tickets for 24 hours before they have to make their purchase. This gives consumers time to decide to purchase that ticket at the quoted rate, or to cancel at no charge within 24 hours. This gives consumers extra leverage to "shop around" for a day, and perhaps to find a lower fare.

It is hard to predict what impact the Customers First policies will have on air travel. Only time will tell if the efforts of the major airlines have truly worked.

Airline Sites:

Air Transport Association

American Airlines Customer Service Plan

Continental Airlines Customer First Plan

Delta Airlines Customer Service Plan

Department of Transportation

Federal Aviation Administration

Northwest's Customer Service Plan

TWA Customer Service Commitment

United Commitment

US Airways 12- Point Customer Commitment

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