Sky-high unethical behaviour

2008-02-14 00:00

As I write this I am sitting at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg feeling about as angry as I can remember feeling for a very long time. It’s 9.45 am and the next flight home to Pietermaritzburg leaves in 15 minutes. The only problem is that I won’t be on it. Nor will I be on the flight after that, which departs at 2 pm. Instead, I will be leaving on the flight that departs at 3.50 pm. That means I will have been waiting here for almost seven-and-a-half hours since I arrived at 8.30 am.

How did this frustrating situation come about? I was scheduled to return to Pietermaritzburg on the 3.50 pm flight today. However, because of changes in planned meetings, it became clear late yesterday that there was no need for me to be in Gauteng today. So at 8.30 am I went to the check-in counter where I asked for my ticket to be changed from the 3.50 pm flight to the 10 am flight. I was told that I could change my ticket but that I would have to pay R500 for the privilege.

Being disinclined to fork out a significant chunk of my salary, I retreated to the nearest coffee shop. Then it struck me – I’d been asking the wrong question. What I really wanted was to go on standby. So off I went back to the check-in counter, only to be told that standby was not an option.

So here I sit, angry and helpless. My sad story, however, is not really the point. The interesting question here is whether or not SA Airlink’s policy in this regard can be considered to be ethical?

Firstly, it’s important to note that putting me on the earlier flight would not have cost SA Airlink a single cent. My ticket, apparently, was sold to the organisation that arranged my trip as part of some sort of deal. This accounts for the R500 price difference between what was paid for my seat and the ticket price of the other available seats.

Secondly, the standby status I was asking for would have in no way denied Airlink the opportunity to sell, at the more expensive price, whatever seats were still available on the 10 am flight. I quite understand that Airlink is a business and if the plane turned out to be full because the company had managed to sell all the remaining seats at the more expensive price, I’d have been disappointed but willing to accept my fate. But, as I was told by three different representatives of SA Airlink, standby was simply not an option. As three different representatives of Airlink clearly stated to me, company policy is to send the flight out with empty seats rather than to allow paying customers who are booked on other flights to take those seats if they are not otherwise sold.

Effectively, then, Airlink’s “customer service” representatives have offered me the following choice. Either pay R500 for the privilege of changing the time at which I make use of a service for which Airlink has already been paid, or sit around for most of the day in order to make use of that service at the originally scheduled time.

Presumably this sort of policy is not illegal, otherwise the “choice” I have been offered would be a form of extortion. But of course ethics is not exhausted by law. Price gouging is not illegal, but it is without a doubt unethical. SA Airlink’s website does not include an articulation of a code of ethics. The company’s strategic partner, SAA, does however list its corporate values on its website. Among the values listed is “integrity” which it defines as including “practising the highest standards of ethical behaviour in all our lines of work”. Perhaps it’s time SA Airlink took a leaf out of its partner’s book.

• Ethicist Dr Deane-Peter Baker writes in his personal capacity. All opinions ex-pressed here are his own and should in no way be taken to represent the position of any group or organisation with which Baker is associated.

• Everyday Ethics is a column dedicated to responding to readers’ questions regarding ethical dilemmas and queries. If you have an ethical challenge you’d like addressed in this column, e-mail your query to EverydayEthics@ukzn.ac.za or fax 033 2605092, marking it clearly with “Everyday Ethics”.

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