Remember the days of no-stop charter flights to tropical destinations; when the seats were actually wide enough to sit in without bruising your hips; when in-flight service included drinks and hot meals were served on china dishes with real silverware; when pillows, magazines, blankets and headphones were handed out to make your flight more comfortable? Those days are over. Unless you go first class, a tiny bag of pretzels and a soft drink is the new normal for in-flight service.

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The service downgrade has been accompanied by downsizing seat sizes and packing more of them into smaller aircraft. This strategy has worked so well that the major airlines are taking it one step further – Ultra Low Cost Carriers (ULCC). According to a Dec 1, 2017 article in McLean’s Magazine by Joe Costaldo, Cheap Flights are Finally Coming to Canada in 2018. “It’s a different model than what Canadians have seen before,” says Chris Murray, an airline analyst at AltaCorp Capital. “There has to be a recognition on the part of consumers that you’re going to get what you pay for.” The model works by stripping costs out of the system. Airfare entitles passengers to a seat and nothing else. A printed boarding pass? That will cost you. A checked bag? Ditto. These airlines have no loyalty programs, airport lounges or in-flight entertainment systems. Seating will be cramped. New airlines regularly fail in Canada. But a tweak to the rules might create new options for travellers.”

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This ‘different model‘  sounds like 1950’s bus travel.

 

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There are a few things about Murray’s statement that concern me. A “tweak to the rules” infers that the Federal Government will be involved in changing what few rules there are to protect passengers, but here’s the scary part.

“An airline ticket entitles you to a seat, and nothing else.” What size of a seat will that be? What about headroom, leg room, access to a washroom – or will it be ‘pay to pee,’ too.?Even your seat ‘entitlement’ is shaky because airlines regularly overbook and, as a United Airlines passenger recently found out the hard way, the airline can bump anyone at any time – resistance is futile.

Where are basic passenger rights in all of this? Where is our government in enforcing them? “The cheapie ‘model’ works by stripping the costs out of the system.” Customers pay for everything else. Can’t wait to see what the cost of a boarding pass will be!  Even more concerning: are they ‘stripping costs’ out of their aircraft maintenance programs, maybe skipping an inspection or two, or getting a few more cycles out of worn tires?

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According to a Mclean’s Magazine article, When Airline passengers Fight Back, by Catherine McIntyre, May 19, 2017, “The public is fed up with the barbarity of modern air travel, resorting to complaints, legal actions and all-out brawls. Have we seen the end of friendly skies?” Airline consumer advocate Gabor Lukacs, believes that, the real problem isn’t that customers are fickle, but that airlines are able to violate regulations with abandon. “The biggest issue is the airlines don’t comply with the law,” says Lukacs, a mathematician by trade who volunteers as an air passenger rights advocate in Canada (Lukacs has launched 29 cases before the Canadian Transportation Agency, which regulates the airline industry, and has won 27 of them). “The laws are there, but airlines just ignore their own policies and say, ‘if you don’t like it, tough—sue us,’” he says. “How many people have the time and energy to sue an airline? Not many.” Lukacs himself is the obvious exception, of course, and as a result he’s become a sort of go-to man for the wronged. His Facebook page, Air Passenger Rights Canada, is bombarded everyday with posts from aggrieved passengers. It seems that great customer service, once the hallmark of airlines, has been put aside in favour of profit maximization.

Statistics from the CTA’s latest annual report show that air travel complaints against Canadian carriers doubled between 2012 and 2016. But during that same period, the number of enforcement actions taken against airlines dropped from 129 to just 64. The agency’s close ties with the airline industry also raises questions about it’s ability to be impartial regarding companies it’s meant to hold accountable. But, data from the United States indicates that while complaints went up, so did ULCC ridership. Even though customers complain about poor service, they still flock to the lowest cost option.

Sitting at home planning a trip, the lowest fare may look to be the most attractive and people may be willing to put up with the discomfort off a cramped seat for a two or three-hour flight. But it’s a lot more than a few hours when you consider all the steps involved – getting to the airport, check-in, (usually a line-up), security (definitely a line-up), waiting at the gait, boarding, ground delays. All of that considered, a two-hour flight can take the better part of a day. No wonder people get crabby!

If you think airports are crowded now, Intervistas Consulting Group estimates that 10 million more Canadians could fly more frequently as a result of dirt-cheap fares. Last year, 43 million passengers flew domestically.

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With low-cost flights, we can look forward to more crowded airports, smaller seats minimal in – flight service – and a lot more short-tempered fellow travellers. The friendly skies may be looking a lot less friendly as ULCC’s  become ever more popular. Buckle up and have a nice flight.

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