Airlines ask DOT for year delay in new rules

By Bill Poling

The airline industry is again asking the Transportation Department for more time — now a full year — to comply with portions of the DOT’s new rules on the disclosure and implementation of baggage fees on multi-carrier routings.

The airlines say they are trying to develop the technology to comply but cannot do so by Jan. 24, the current effective date. In addition to asking for another year, they are asking for further clarification of some of the fine points of the new rules, which are apparently turning out to be more complicated than originally envisioned.

When the DOT adopted the rules in April, it set an August effective date, then changed that to January when carriers claimed they needed more time to reprogram their systems.

Now the airlines are saying the five-month delay was not nearly enough.
At issue are two related provisions. One would require airlines to disclose, in online receipts and on e-ticket confirmations, the specific fees and allowances that apply to a particular itinerary.

The DOT has stated that the disclosure cannot be a mere list of the standard fees and allowances, which are already posted on airline websites. Instead, they must explain the various factors, such as credit card usage or frequent-flyer status, that can affect the policy toward carry-on items or the first and second bag.

The second rule stipulates that on multi-segment itineraries to, from or within the U.S., the same allowances and fees must apply throughout.
There are two variations.

On interline itineraries in general, the rule states that the entire itinerary is to be governed by the policies of the first carrier shown on the ticket, even if the rules of a downline carrier are more advantageous to the passenger.

In the case of codeshares, the rules of the marketing carrier (i.e., the carrier whose code is on the reservation) take precedence over the rules of the operating carrier.

In the case of the first rule, according to the airlines, automated systems do not provide ticketing carriers with the specific information required to be disclosed when it pertains to the baggage policies of other airlines.

As for the second rule, airport check-in systems do not provide the transporting carriers with information that would enable them to apply the baggage policies of other carriers on the itinerary.

The carriers limited their request to the two baggage provisions, and are not seeking a delay of the new full-fare advertising rule, which will require them and other travel sellers to include all taxes and mandatory fees in all advertising and fare quotes.

Affidavits

The petition was filed by the four major associations — IATA, Airlines for America (formerly the Air Transport Association), the Regional Airline Association and the Air Carrier Association.

The petition included sworn affidavits and statements from 11 airline IT, customer-service and marketing-automation officials explaining the technical challenges.

A central issue is that many airport check-in systems used in and outside the U.S. are not Internet-enabled and lack any way to identify airlines that handled the passenger on previous segments, or to access any database to verify the baggage policies and fees of other airlines whose policies are to govern the itinerary.

An example provided by JetBlue explained that the airline has an interline relationship with South African Airways but has no active partnership with Kenya Airways. Yet it is theoretically possible, JetBlue said, for South African or one of its agents to issue a single ticket for travel originating on Kenya, connecting to South African, and then to JetBlue.

If the itinerary included multiple stops within the U.S. on JetBlue, there would be no way for a check-in agent on one of those segments even to know that the itinerary had originated on Kenya Airways.

As a United official explained it in a sworn affidavit, “United’s and Continental’s check-in systems were developed to handle a customer’s itinerary on the day of check-in, plus the customer’s downline connection only. These systems ... do not have and cannot access the passenger’s preceding itinerary” to determine the rules of the originating carrier.

Alaska, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Lufthansa, Delta, Cathay Pacific and other airlines submitted similar statements.

Alaska Airlines’ director of airport technology, in an affidavit sworn under penalty of perjury, stated that the company is working with its provider, Sabre, to modify its systems but will not be able to meet the deadline because, in essence, the technology to do so does not exist.

Global data  

ATPCO, the airline-owned company that manages the industry database of fares and rules, is still developing a central repository of information about baggage fees and rules. Once it is complete, airlines say they will need to build software solutions enabling their particular systems to access that repository.

The complexity of that task varies from carrier to carrier. Some systems, such as Delta’s, are based on 1960s technology.

As Delta explained it to the DOT, “Deltamatic’s core structure did not include the programming to accommodate first and second checked-bag fees, and the important exceptions to them, such as exemptions for frequent flyers.

“This functionality has been achieved in Deltamatic through extensive coding of line-item statements within the programs for each respective bag-fee scenario (commonly referred to as “hard-coding” if-then statements). These statements are read in sequential order to determine which statement to apply to the given passenger.”

According to Delta, “The core structure within the Deltamatic baggage programs must now be re-engineered.”

Virgin Atlantic said its Shares legacy system, originally an EDS product that is now managed by Hewlett-Packard, will require 3,000 hours of programming.

The airlines also submitted a statement from Daniel Friedli, Hewlett-Packard’s transportation product manager, who said that merely pulling baggage data from a central database and printing it on the confirmation is an imperfect solution because “any downline person or system will not be aware of the exact charges, conditions and other baggage-related information that was presented to the passenger.

“If the rules are not stored in the [e-ticket] itself, they will never be known to any of the downline carriers, making it impossible to know or enforce the rules, and reproduce a receipt with the same information.”

He continued, “For this to work through all instances, and also in follow-up transactions such as [e-ticket] exchanges, all data must be stored in the [e-ticket],” a step that would entail still more delay.

‘Clarifications’

In addition to the fundamental technology issues, the airlines appear to be confronting complexities inherent in various clarifications that the DOT has issued to cover exceptions and circumstances not envisioned in the original language of the rule.

For example, the DOT had to clarify that if a bag becomes overweight when a passenger goes on a shopping spree during a stopover in a foreign country, the next transporting carrier must assess the excess fee of the originating carrier.

The DOT added that it can do so in local currency, but any foreign government tax on that fee would have to have been disclosed on the original e-ticket confirmation.

The DOT has also offered this explanation of how to handle a two-carrier itinerary from Miami to New York via Washington, included in an FAQ distributed to airlines earlier this year:

“Carrier A operates the Miami-Washington and New York-Miami segments, and Carrier B operates the Washington-New York segment. However, Carrier B’s code and flight number are shown on the ticket for the Miami-Washington and Washington-New York segments, and Carrier A’s code and light number are shown for the New York-Miami segment.

“Because the first flight is a codeshare and Carrier B is the marketing carrier for that flight, Carrier B’s baggage allowances and fees apply throughout the itinerary.”

Carriers have advised the DOT that the application of Carrier B’s policies in this instance could conflict with industrywide practices governed by IATA Resolution 302, which states that the rules of the “most significant carrier” should govern on carrier itineraries when one airline has a comparatively minor role.

The airlines have asked the DOT to give them the flexibility, which the regulation does not offer, to rely on the globally recognized IATA resolution or to abide by the practices of the airline whose policies are more advantageous to the passenger.

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