Practical levelPractical level: Customer care and passenger rights

In general terms, the "practical level" covers any kind of problems which may occur in the relation between provider and operator. Problems mainly occur when services do not correspond to what has been announced before (lack of quality). This includes situations where, based on their own judgement, customers are unhappy with the service provided and wish to communicate this to the operator.

Service expected and service delivered

In reality, public transport operates in a complex environment where various influences can lead to service disruptions, missed connections and other problems. Examples are extreme weather conditions, other traffic and passenger conduct. But factors within the operator's realm - such as defective vehicles and staff behaviour - can lead to service malfunction as well.
From the users' perspective, a "service malfunction" must be understood in a wider sense as "any deviation from those service parameters which had been advertised when the decision to travel was taken". This also includes problems arising from incorrect information provided by operators. These parameters are mainly advertised or laid down in the timetable, however, not only delays but also early departure from stops and the lack of advertised features such as catering, first class or disabled access should be included in this definition.
Public transport users have to satisfy their travel needs according to the standards defined by somebody else (the operator) in the timetable. In turn, they expect him to live up to these standards as well. The reason for irregularities which always requires customers to re-adjust their personal travel plans to the changed conditions, appears unimportant from this perspective. Passengers expect adequate efforts to minimise their personal damage and inconvenience and to provide compensation for costs they incur. These can be expenses for alternative means of travel or to inform people waiting at the destination about the delay.

Possible measures

Again, two main strategies can be identified: First to minimise the negative effects of malfunctions while they happen and until normal operating conditions have been restored. Second to provide redress and compensation after the incident for those affected as part of a strategy for customer care.
First of all, this refers to the management of customer relations. Furthermore, the legal basis of the relation between passenger and provider plays a major role. In addition, the way in which public transport authorities and regulatory institutions supervise the industry can support consumer protection.


Passenger rights and "goodwill"

The current discussion (on European level as well as in some states) has highlighted the fact that public transport operators have traditionally been exempted from civil law obligations requiring producers to replace or compensate consumers in case of delays and cancellations. It is thus at the operator's discretion to offer compensation to passengers. The situation is different for cases of personal injury or damaged luggage, but fortunately these are rare events. Delays are much more common in comparison, thus affecting many more users.
This legal situation, which goes back a long time, stands against the commercial interest of operators to keep their customers despite of their less pleasant experiences.
In handling complaints, the operator thus has to evaluate if and what kind of compensations it offers on a "goodwill" basis. Modern techniques of complaints management can help in this process. From the users' view, the main weakness is the lacking transparency as to if and how much compensation they might receive under which circumstances. Furthermore, if redress is only provided upon detailed request, it rewards those who are more courageous and persistent in asking

Voluntary compensation schemes

Apart from the recent debate about the legal situation, transport operators are starting to introduce compensation schemes as voluntary measures based on industry recommendations or agreements in public service contracts. These are commonly known as "customer charter" or "travel guarantee". They offer compensation in certain cases according to pre-defined criteria and procedures. Another approach are "guaranteed services": Certain services are advertised as "guaranteed" with special internal precautions to ensure that they are realised with the greatest possible reliability. In case of a malfunction, some alternative (e.g. travel by taxi) is automatically provided by the operator without a need for the customer to become actively involved.

Ways to settle disputes

Independently of the legal framework, the majority of problems experienced by passengers will be dealt with some kind of complaints handling procedure. Due to the complex pattern of responsibilities in public transport and the influences of other policy fields, procedures for alternative dispute resolution (ADR) are particularly valuable. They represent a possibility to "appeal" in the passenger is not satisfied with the treatment of the complaint, which is the more useful as the possibilities to resolve disputes in court are often limited by law and not attractive due to lengthy procedures and low amounts involved. They offer a quicker solution developed by people with experience in the sector. The data collected by mediation offices and ombudsmen also point out critical issues which can be taken up also on the political and planning level.