Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Big Divide

Differences in European and U.S. approach to public disclosure of disruption information

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced last week that they fined Frontier Airlines $40,000 for failing to display on-time performance for its flights on the carrier’s Web site as required by DOT rules and ordered the carrier to cease and desist from further violations in the future. From April 2010, the 16 largest U.S. carriers must post information on their Web sites about the on-time performance of each of their flights, including the percentage of flights that arrived within 15 minutes of schedule; the percentage of arrivals that were more than 30 minutes late, with special highlighting if these flights were late more than 50 percent of the time; and the percentage of cancellations if more than 5 percent of the flight’s operations were cancelled. (Source DOT)

Unlike in Europe, air travelers in the US have a right to know whether the flight they are paying for is chronically delayed or cancelled. “Protecting the rights of air travellers is a high priority for DOT and we will continue to take enforcement action when necessary,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

On the other side of the Atlantic European airlines and regulators look at disruption problems in a different way. The more disruptive the flights, the more protective airlines have become in disclosing the information about flight delays and cancellations, treating it as ‘commercially sensitive’. Actually, so sensitive that Association of European Airlines (AEA) abandoned the publication their long standing Consumer Report [link deleted in the meantime]. Lacking the standards and direction at EU level, some airlines have started to publish punctuality reports when they want, showing the data that they wish to be seen. This makes the enforcement of controversial EU legislation on passenger protection even less enforceable. The protective roles of government and regulators seem to have been lost along the way, and so were some elementary passenger rights. Is an introduction of compulsory reporting in Europe so far away? Can it be introduced selectively, say for the biggest hub operators to start with?

It is hard to explain the reasons behind the big divide in the European and U.S. approach to public disclosure of disruption information. We cannot say that passenger rights and prevention of massive disruption losses are less important for European regulators than for their U.S. counterparts, but there must be strong reasons that are preventing Europeans from introducing more transparency into disruption reporting. More transparency means more appreciation for passenger rights to decide which of the carriers are least likely to waste their money and time. Moreover, it will increase the chances for the reduction of negative effects of disruptions on airlines, passengers, the economy and society.