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A FLIER'S PLIGHT -- AND A FAX THAT WORKE

More than 20 years of consumer reporting has made me pretty cynical about the way big corporations respond to consumers' voices. But a recent exchange between a private citizen and a huge airline has renewed my faith in the ability of consumers to be heard -- at least once in a while. Here's what happened:

Last summer, some friends of longtime reader and consumer advocate Don Pevsner saved up enough frequent-flier miles for two round trips to London on the Concorde. After their stay in London, they planned to visit Zurich and Nice.

They had heard about British Airways' "Europe Airpass" tickets for American visitors, which would have provided low-fare tickets for those local flights. But BA told them that Europe Airpass tickets could be sold only to travelers who flew from the United States to London on paid tickets.

Because their trip (on frequent-flier miles) didn't qualify, they'd have to pay much higher fares to get to Zurich and Nice -- or else use competing visitor tickets on British Midland that didn't provide as good a schedule.

Don was amazed at the limitations on the BA tickets. So much so that he fired off a fax to BA's chairman, noting that the ticket restriction was counterproductive. You have to be a pretty good BA customer, he observed, to earn enough miles for two Concorde round trips to London. Travel on frequent-flier awards is here to stay, Don concluded, and denying those travelers access to Europe Airpass made no sense.

Within a few days, Don received a return fax. It was very brief and to the point: The policy of restricting Europe Airpass tickets to travelers on paid tickets had outlived its usefulness. BA was taking immediate action to remove that restriction.

For all Don and I know, BA may already have been reviewing its restrictions on sale of Europe Airpass tickets. But I'd like to believe that Don's fax had at least something to do with the decision. And if that's the case, I'd like to commend BA for being willing to accept and act on a good idea regardless of where and how it originated.

You might think that big corporations would welcome constructive suggestions, but that's often not the case. In these days of corporate bureaucracy, many of them adhere rigorously to the NIH concept: If an idea is "not invented here," they won't have anything to do with it.

And even if someone in a big organization would be willing to accept an unsolicited suggestion from outside, many would refer it to a committee or task force for a six-month study or pay a consultant thousands of dollars to prepare a report. That's why the BA story is so remarkable. A sensible suggestion. A brief review. And an immediate decision.

To be fair, I'll have to note that Don isn't quite an "ordinary" consumer. He has been an active consumer advocate for years, and his name is reasonably well-known in the industry. Don may well have succeeded where an ordinary "Joe or Jill Doakes" would have been ignored.

Still, the idea is intriguing. Over the next few weeks, I plan to fire off a half-dozen or so faxes like Don's -- raising issues where I believe airlines could improve their service to travelers and still improve their bottom line. In a month or so, I'll let you know what kind of responses I receive.

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