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In The World Of Air Travel, Not All Passengers Created Equal

Jul 8, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 12:36 pm

When Asiana Flight 214 from South Korea crashed onto the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, hundreds of flights into that airport were canceled, stranding thousands of travelers at airports across the country.

The Asiana crash came right in the middle of a holiday weekend, disrupting airline networks. And it occurred during a weekend when many flights were intentionally overbooked.

What happened next to all those stranded travelers offers a revealing window into how airlines view their passengers.

The fate of each traveler trying to get back to San Francisco depended almost entirely on their "status": how the airline computer systems calculated their potential future value to the airline. When there's a disaster or bad weather closes an airport, available seats are doled out based on a customer's status on the airline, not how far they have come or how long they have been struggling to get home.

The scene inside Newark's United Airlines terminal Sunday afternoon bordered on chaotic. At Gate 113, a huge crowd of people pressed up against the desk trying to get to San Francisco. Half a dozen previous flights had been delayed or canceled in the past 24 hours.

Imran Qureshi was stuck at Newark after flying in from the United Kingdom on Saturday.

"There is no way to go home," he said. "I have been going to every flight — which leaves every hour — to see if I can get on a standby but apparently the airline has policies to overbook every flight. So if they have overbooked their flight, people on standby have no chance at all."

The flight Qureshi was hoping to get on had close to 100 passengers waiting on the standby list and no free seats. United was bumping between six and 12 confirmed passengers off most flights from Newark to San Francisco on Sunday, adding to crowds in the airport.

Serge Francois, from northern France, was one of the unlucky ones.

"We are traveling for more than 20 hours now," he said. "We made a reservation three months ago now, so we would like to have a seat."

Elizabeth James was flying with her mom and her husband, Jason. She and her husband were bumped. But her mother got a seat.

It turns out there is a method to this madness: It's called customer relationship management — or CRM — and airlines helped invent it.

Elizabeth and Jason James used frequent-flier miles to buy their tickets. Her mother paid full price. And in the eyes of the airlines not all customers are created equal.

Each passenger's rights on each flight are determined by a complicated calculus. It includes how frequently they fly and how much they paid for the ticket in their hand.

Frequent business travelers, like Demetrius Kondros, deserve special attention. These travelers generate tens of thousands of dollars a year in profits for an airline. But customers who buy a cheap ticket once or twice a year on vacation are almost worthless.

So when there's a disaster or bad weather closes an airport, available seats are doled out based on a customer's carefully calculated status, not how long they have been struggling to get home.

"When the crash [in San Francisco] happened, [United's Global Services program] actually called me," Kondros says.

He was scheduled to fly to San Francisco from Barcelona. Without making a call they rerouted him into a different nearby airport.

"They told me that I was rerouted via Munich, New York [and] Denver to San Jose," he said.

When Kondros' Denver flight was delayed, United got him back on a direct flight to San Francisco, even though it was already oversold. Kondros jumped in front of passengers who had been stranded for days and likely pushed a confirmed passenger off the flight. But, Kondros flies more than 200,000 miles a year.

Imran Qureshi does not, so he won't get home to San Francisco until Tuesday.

United said it plans to resume a normal schedule Monday. It offered passengers a chance to change their scheduled flights without paying a fee. But for many who were stranded the airline offered little else.

"This is just crazy," Qureshi said. "I also asked for a hotel. I said, 'Look, this is not my fault.' And they're saying, 'Well, it's not our fault either so we're not going to give you a hotel.' I have been paying out of my pocket for the hotel. And this is ridiculous. This is no way to treat people."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Following the plane crash, hundreds of flights into San Francisco were canceled, stranding thousands of passengers at airports all across the country. The crash came right in the middle of a holiday weekend. It disrupted airlines' networks at a time when many of their flights were already intentionally overbooked. As NPR's Steve Henn reports, the difficulties these passengers face getting home provide a window into how airlines operate.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Inside airports yesterday, folks headed west faced crowded, overbooked flights. This was the scene 24 hours ago. I'm standing here at Gate 113 in Newark Airport. There is a huge crowd of people pressed up against the desk, trying to get to San Francisco. Flights have been delayed or canceled for the last 24 hours, and the backups have made it almost impossible to find a seat into San Francisco.

IMRAN QURESHI: There's no way to go home.

HENN: Imran Qureshi(ph) was stuck at Newark after flying in from the U.K. on Saturday.

QURESHI: I've been going to every flight, which leaves every hour, to see if I can get on a standby, but apparently the airline has policies to overbook every flight. So if they have overbooked their flight, people on standby have no chance at all.

HENN: The flight Qureshi was hoping to get on had close to 100 passengers waiting on the standby list, but absolutely no space. So what did she just announce?

(LAUGHTER)

QURESHI: She said that if somebody wants to give up their seat, which they already have confirmed, then she will give them $500 and one night somewhere, and then they can go back on Wednesday, not before Wednesday.

HENN: There were no takers. Instead, United was bumping between a dozen to a half-dozen confirmed passengers off of almost every flight to San Francisco. Serge Francois(ph) was one of the unlucky ones.

SERGE FRANCOIS: We are traveling for more than 20 hours now. We made a reservation three months ago now, so we would like to have a seat.

(LAUGHTER)

HENN: Elizabeth James(ph) was flying with her mom and her husband. Do they have seats?

ELIZABETH JAMES: Only my mom has, for whatever reason. She got the middle seat, but our seats are gone.

HENN: So you bought them together? You bought the tickets together?

JAMES: No. Actually, I'm using my miles for my husband and I, and she purchased hers.

HENN: Right.

JAMES: So, yes, we have no dollar number attached to our flight.

HENN: Right. So there you go. Off you go.

JAMES: Exactly.

HENN: Bumped. It turns out there's a method to this madness: It's called customer relationship management, or CRM, and airlines helped invent it. In the eyes of the airlines, not all customers are created equal. Some, like Demetrius Kondros(ph), deserve special attention.

DEMETRIUS KONDROS: When the crash happened, Global Services actually called me and told me that I was rerouted via Munich, New York, Denver to San Jose.

HENN: And when Kondros' flight to Denver was delayed, United got him back on a direct flight to San Francisco, even though it was already oversold. Kondros jumped in front of passengers who had been stranded for days and probably pushed a confirmed passenger off of that flight. But he flies more than 200,000 miles a year. Imran Qureshi doesn't, so he won't get a flight to San Francisco until Tuesday.

QURESHI: This is just crazy. I also asked for a hotel. I said, look, it's not my fault. I - you know? And they're saying, well, it's not our fault either, so we're not going to give you a hotel. So I've been paying out of my pocket for the hotel, and this is ridiculous. This is no way to treat people.

HENN: Still, business travelers usually pay a lot more for each ticket, and they generate tens of thousands of dollars a year per person in profits for airlines. Customers who buy economy tickets once or twice a year for vacation are, financially at least, almost worthless. So when there's a disaster or bad weather closes an airport, available seats are doled out based upon a customer's carefully calculated status, not how long they've been struggling to get home. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.