Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bad Idea No. 5099

It's not often that travelers truly, deeply, madly feel sorry for airlines, given pared-to-the-bone customer service, petulent flight attendants who think it's all about them, proliferating add-on fees and more, but sometimes a fair-minded person simply has to take their side.

Such is the case now for me. I read in UK newspaper The Guardian that the European Union has threatened to take legal action against the KLM unit of Air France/KLM because the carrier has compensated stranded passengers for only 24 hours of expenses occasioned by the Iceland volcanic ash cloud, instead of paying for all hotels and meals, as required by law. In many cases, I line up on side of put-upon air travelers in conflicts with airlines, but the airlines didn't cause the volcano to erupt, did they? And they didn't make the decision to close much of European air space this past spring, causing millions of travelers to be stranded, did they? They did not.

The EU is citing EU rule 261 in its criticism of KLM. This is the often-estimable law that requires airlines to compensate passengers for things that ARE their fault, like mechanical failure, or involuntarily bumping passengers from flights the airlines have overbooked. Problem is, EU rule 261 (the United States has a weaker version, generically known as U.S. rule 240) doesn't differentiate between things that airlines can control and things they can't. It's a blunt instrument operating on the premise that one size fits all. That's a false premise. An act of nature - what some may call an act of God - is way outside the portfolio of even the most dieified CEO.

In the short term, KLM may lose out with its foot-dragging, alienating both EU authorities and passengers who, through no fault of their own, ended up horribly stressed and having to pay unanticipated expenses. In the medium- and long-term, Brussels should take another look at rule 261 and revise it in light of common sense and fairness. In a business riddled with bad ideas, rule 261 is bad idea number - oh, I don't know - let's say bad idea number 5099.

The world's airlines, already reeling from the Great Recession, terrorism, volatile fuel prices, fears of pandemic disease and more, don't need this inflexible, unfair rule on their plate, too.