Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Scottish Passenger Agents' Association (SPAA) (PEAT 04)

PASSENGERS' EXPERIENCE OF AIR TRAVEL

  Established in 1921, the Scottish Passenger Agents' Association (SPAA) is the world's oldest travel trade association. Today SPAA is Scotland's largest travel trade association and represents the interests of all of Scotland's major travel agents, working alongside our Associate Members, which include many of the world's leading airlines, tour operators and cruise lines. Each of these sectors within the industry has an interest in the experience which is relevant to their customers who in turn become customers of the airlines and airports in the UK.

  Competition is what this industry thrives upon; the challenge to attract customers and guarantee repeat business ensures we do not rest on our laurels and deliver mediocre services. Yet the impetus to continuously improve the customer experience—be it through reduced airfares or more efficient security procedures—disappears when the traveller has no viable alternative. As customer satisfaction is the goal to which all within the travel industry aim, it is imperative that the customer experience is good, but sadly this is not the case.

1.  TICKETS

1.1  Ease of Purchase

  Traditionally, the most flexible way of purchasing an airline ticket was through a travel agent, but recent advances in technology have led to a drive by the airlines to encourage internet bookings. This has resulted in cost savings to the airlines, but a loss of flexibility to the customer in that they cannot readily compare one operator with another and have to trawl through various internet sites to establish the best ticket price. With many customers now becoming amateur travel agents, errors do occur frequently. In short, tickets are easy to purchase but when an error is made it can be very expensive and there is unwillingness on the part of the airline to help the customer.

  Travel agents already had a highly efficient and effective way of making reservations and issuing tickets through four Global Distribution Systems (GDS). These list flights and fares of most airlines in a manner which enable fast comparison with one another and enable choices to be made instantly and easily in one smooth transaction, both for single and multi sector journeys through numerous gateways or hubs.

1.2  Transparency of additional charges

  Gone are the days when an air fare was simply that. The price you saw was what you paid. In an effort to continually reduce the "fare" airlines now add—in varying degrees—additional "taxes and charges". In many cases, these additional charges are not taxes, but simply a means of diverting otherwise legitimate business costs away from the fare into another category.

  These include—airport passenger service charges, fuel surcharges, customs and immigration inspection fees, insurance and wheelchair levies, and vary considerably from airline to airline adding extensive confusion to the customer. In addition, many items previously included, are now charged as an extra, such as meals, seat allocation, ticket on departure, booking fees etc.

  SPAA would recommend that airline fares should be inclusive of all known compulsory charges and no additional charges should be made unless they are completely optional.

1.3  Availability of discounted tickets

  Many discounted fares are advertised, but as stated above, it is not clear in many cases what the true cost will be until well into the booking process. While those employed in the industry may fully understand what additional charges can be expected and can advise accordingly, customers cannot be expected to anticipate all of the additional charges which are likely to occur and transparency is required in this respect.

1.4  Clear Terms and Conditions

  Over the last 10 years airlines have gone from having very clear terms and conditions which were standard across the industry to individual rules and regulations which at times are not well thought out and serve only to confuse the customer. This is further complicated by terms and conditions not being clearly signposted on websites and passengers not clearly understanding what the consequences are of changes to names, or cancellation /alteration of reservations already made.

2.  TRAVEL TO AIRPORTS

  Most people travelling to an airport have hand or hold baggage and it is a consequence of this that it is easier for them to travel by private car. Where bus and train connections are being planned or already exist it is absolutely essential that they have adequate baggage storage facilities. It is not acceptable that commuter type services can simply be extended to cover the airports.

  In addition, where public transport is to be meaningful, the schedules have to reasonably fit the needs of the airport and arrival/departure times in the early hours and late evening arrivals. Without this it is meaningless and will simply mean that passengers travel by car.

  In general, rail travel from and to UK airports compares unfavourably with airports in other countries such as Schiphol at Amsterdam.

3.  AIRPORTS

3.1  Accessibility for elderly and disabled people

  All airports provide elderly and disabled customers with additional facilities. However, the airport operating company will in many cases charge substantial amounts to the airline for the provision of these services, which, with the exception of Ryanair, absorb the charge. It is from the customer's viewpoint seen as a free service but this is certainly not the case at the UK's major airports. There are certain airports where no additional charge is made for wheelchair provision and this is commendable and should be practised at all UK airports.

  In many cases, coaches are required to drop off/pick up quite some distance from terminal buildings. This is a particular problem for elderly or infirm passengers.

3.2  Quality of check in procedures

  Airport check-in has become one of the most stressful experiences of air travel in the 21st century.

  Long queues endure and customer patience is sorely tried. Space which was once designed for passenger use has in more and more cases been used for retail development, with the result that queues snake around a limited number of desks with an equally limited number of staff as airlines seek to cut their costs. Advance electronic check in and seat selection is helping but still has a long way to go before the useage is at the required levels of satisfaction. A number of airports still have to introduce the baggage drop facility which—unless it is quick and easy—defeats the purpose of having checked in before leaving home, and only serves to increase the stress levels of customers, who thought they were doing the right thing.

3.3  Airport facilities

  Our airports in the United Kingdom have forgotten what their purpose in life is and have become huge shopping malls. The areas originally designated at the planning stage to for the use of passengers has been given over to huge retail development and seating has all but disappeared unless customers use one of the food outlets, which in turn generates more revenue for the airport operator.

3.4  Security

  Vying with check in for the most stressful experience is the security channel. While we all recognise the need for stringent security, the designated areas and equipment are simply not large enough for the volumes of passengers and staffing is woefully inadequate. Huge queues build up and it would seem that there is a complete lack of planning. At any airport there are variances on when an aircraft may land or depart but the one absolute certainty is that airports know well in advance when passengers will arrive to check in and proceed to the security channel. There is no excuse whatsoever for staffing levels not be tailored to the expected passenger demand.

  Confusing regulations interpreted differently at UK airports lead to huge inconsistencies in the level of security being provided.

4.  BAGGAGE

4.1  Rules for carry on baggage

  As already stated, standard procedures were the norm, but in recent months the carry on baggage allowances were first increased to cut out much of the need to check in bags and then with increased security the size of carry on bag was greatly reduced. While the maximum size is now once again standard for the purposes of security clearances, each airline has its own weight limit. Confusion among passengers is immense.

4.2  Excess baggage charges

  With recent increases in charges announced by British Airways, the subject of excess baggage charges has come to the fore. From a standard weight or piece system depending on the final destination, the free allowance has degenerated into a confusing range of allowances from 15 kgs upwards, and the trend is to milk the customer for as much as possible. However, even if this was clearly displayed and adhered to it would be bad enough, but British Airways is itself confused with charges for more than one bag being substantial even if they both fall into the weight allowance. Elderly and infirm passengers will be judged at check in as to whether they can ably carry one bag or two but there is no clear cut rule and the judgement will be made at the discretion of the check in agent. This is not a satisfactory way of dealing with the issue.

  Further complications arrive on (a) code share flights when the ticket is sold as a British Airways flight, but is in fact operated by a partner airline and (b) British Airways Franchise airlines which operate in all other respects as British Airways with their colours and flight numbers but the baggage allowance may vary. How does the customer know?

  In the above instance, British Airways is cited as an example, but code sharing is a widespread practice which confuses passengers in respect of which airline they are actually travelling on and what facilities will be available to them.

4.3  Lost and stolen baggage

  On point to point journeys, the incidence of lost baggage is concerning enough but on through connecting journeys the chances of baggage going astray is very high indeed. This is of particular concern to passengers travelling from Scotland via London Heathrow or London Gatwick to an international point.

  Recent events at London Heathrow indicate that the system is far from robust and when things do go wrong there seems to be a lack of management and willingness to resolve the issue. From problems in December—well before the fog in Christmas week, the delays in locating and delivering missing bags were quite intolerable, and remedial action at the highest level needs to be taken to prevent such occurrences happening again.

4.4  Ground handling arrangements

  It is apparent that staffing levels and competence must be improved to ensure that baggage problems are rectified. It would seem in many cases that the airport employees have little concern about the inconvenience and expense incurred by the passenger as a result of their action and better senior management control is badly needed.

5.  AIRCRAFT

  While many airlines have been criticised for the seat pitch on board there is more awareness now of the effects of minimal legroom and progress is being made in respect of aircraft on long haul flights to resolve the issues.

  SPAA have no issues with the level of customer service being provided by UK airlines and commend the action being taken by airlines and their crews to curtail the actions of unruly, drunk and disruptive passengers. SPAA suggests that further research needs to be carried out to establish why this worrying trend is increasing. While in itself it is only a tiny percentage of passengers who behave in this way it does have major concerns for all of the other passengers aboard an aircraft when disruptive and unruly behaviour occurs.

6.  FLIGHT CANCELLATIONS

  Flight cancellations are already legislated for by the EU, but there seems to be an unwillingness to protect the customer from unnecessary cancellations on the pretext of weather or operational reasons. There are many, many cases of flights being cancelled where the airline hides behind the legislation and no compensation is payable to the customer. In some cases the customer has gone to court and won, but this should not be necessary.

  In Scotland, we also have the added complication of the cancellation of all domestic flights by British Airways whenever they have a serious problem at London Heathrow. This means that connecting passengers in each direction are completely stranded with no alternative transport being provided.

  Also, low cost airlines have cancelled flights without regard to the alternatives available and recent cases have forced passengers to travel overland at their own cost when suitable alternatives could have been found via connecting points. No compensation has been payable. Surely the EU regulations were not meant to be flouted in this way and should be rigorously enforced.

  Having said that, we do accept that weather can cause cancellations at times. In those circumstances it is incumbent on the airline or their handling agent to source alternative forms of transport and provide assistance rather than simply leave passengers to fend for themselves.

7.  BUDGET V FULL SERVICE AIRLINES

  Budget airlines have expanded at a phenomenal rate over the last 10 years. The travelling public have benefited greatly from a huge raft of new direct services at affordable prices which opened up whole new tourist markets both at overseas and in incoming visitors to Scotland. The public have welcomed their innovative simplicity but they do have failings in that they do not provide the level of customer support on the odd occasion when things go wrong.

  Conversely, the full service airlines have gone from the provision of a high level of service—which justified the fare differential—to a total lack of customer service and care in an effort to match the budget airlines.

  The end result is that there is no incentive to raise the care level and the customer suffers on both counts. On the one hand he pays little and expects little, and on the other he pays more and expects more, but receives little.

8.  AIRPORT CHARGES

  Airport Charges vary considerably across the UK. At airports run by BAA in the London area charges are substantially less per passenger than in airports run by BAA Scotland. The domestic passenger charge at Gatwick is £4.98 while at Aberdeen it is £9.53. Passengers at Scotland's main airports can pay more than double their English counterparts and this is grossly unfair and an abuse of their dominant position.

  It is doubtful if the passenger understands just how much the airport charges him to walk through the airport from car park to aircraft, but it can be substantial. On international flights it can be as high as £13.95 per passenger. On top are high car park charges.

9.  GENERAL

  It can be seen from our submissions on various aspects of the passenger experience that there are a number of areas where the level of expected satisfaction has fallen over the last few years.

  Pressure on the airline industry has resulted in a much lower level of staffing and experience. While it is relatively easy to make a reservation and purchase a ticket, when things go adrift, there are not any back up staff to resolve the problems.

  Travel agents were well used to playing their part during strike, weather problems etc and gave of their time freely to assist their clients and transferred them to other flights where possible. This is still the case where passengers book with an agent. With more and more bookings being made directly with the airline, then the agent is cut out of the loop leaving the passenger to resolve their own difficulties. When the airline cannot handle the pressure then the results are disastrous, and a fairly simple issue at Heathrow becomes a nightmare and media frenzy.

  The experience which passengers encounter at the hands of airports and airlines is not pleasant and has to be corrected.

  We hope that our submission has been helpful. If there are areas which you would like us to expand upon then please do not hesitate to make further contact with us.

Sandy MacPherson

President

February 2007





 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 26 July 2007