DOT is the judge and jury when it comes to airline transgressions. We need DOT on the passengers’ side.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) seems to have lost its way when it comes to traveler protections. It doesn’t seem interested in taking care of its real customers, America’s consumers and the airline passengers. The needs of the public seem to be being ignored and the needs of airlines are getting higher billing than those of passengers. The malaise of DOT can be seen in its lackadaisical enforcement of passenger protections rules and its half-hearted efforts at getting rules written to put new laws passed more than a year ago into effect.
One can’t blame many of these traveler protections faults on the Trump administration. The Obama administration seemed to have no urgency when it came to consumer protections during their last four years in power. The Trump administration is still chaotic and saddled with an almost empty cadre of transportation upper-level civil servants. In the meantime, consumers and airline passengers are bearing the brunt of this lack of action by both administrations.
1. No rules for families sitting together
The previous version of the FAA bill had several important provisions for consumer protections that were passed as law by Congress. One was called the “Families Sitting Together Act.” The law was passed to allow families with children 13 years of age and younger to sit with their parents without an extra charge for a seat reservation. This law makes sense. Who wants to have their toddler separated from them on a flight? And, who wants someone else’s toddler sitting next to them weeping and wailing? Being able to fly with your minor children is one of the basic traveler protections. DOT is not enforcing that law.
2. No rules for refunds of check baggage fees when bags are delayed
Another law passed by Congress was one that would refund the checked baggage fee if the checked bag did not get into the hands of the passenger within a reasonable time after the flight. It seems not too much to ask to have the service for which one pays to actually be provided. The airlines protested vigorously; however, even Congressmen could see the benefits of at least guaranteeing a modicum of check-baggage service — getting the luggage to the passenger after the flight for which the passenger was charged a checked baggage fee.
Amazingly, this law is not in effect yet. DOT has not promulgated the rules that will make that happen. Airlines have no requirement to provide the service for which airline passengers are now paying. It is shameful.
3. No meetings of advisory committee for aviation consumer protection
One of the most important advisory committees in Washington, DC, is the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection. This committee has become the only place where public discussions of passenger protections can take place. The decline of personal space on aircraft has been discussed, with a call for the FAA to retest aircraft for evacuation using the currently limited seat pitch. The committee discussed the rise of air rage as more and more passengers are packed into planes. The committee heard testimony from the European Union about the value of putting posters up at airports that inform passengers of their basic passenger rights. Other discussions dealt with transparency of airfares, the scourge of hotel resort fees, and the need for privacy of travel information.
Since the beginning of the presidential elections in mid-2016, there have been no meetings. Now, the consumer member of the committee is no longer in office and the next FAA bill is in limbo. That has meant that the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection has not met and will not meet until late in spring of 2018. Again, the DOT laissez-faire approach has meant consumers are deprived of one of their most important venues for consumer protection discussions.
4. FAA refuses to clarify safety evacuation tests
One of the most lively discussions was about the health and safety effects of squeezing passengers together in aircraft. The consumer representative on this committee, Charlie Leocha of Travelers United, changes the discussion from one of comfort and customer service to a discussion of health and safety. Rather than focus on discomfort, the committee examined the ability of airlines to evacuate aircraft with the smaller space between seats.
Since the committee meeting, another consumer protection group, FlyersRights.com, staffed by attorneys, has taken the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a part of DOT, to court and won. The passenger world is awaiting the results of aircraft evacuation testing that the FAA refused to share with consumer advocates. If that testing has not been completed, the FAA will have to retest aircraft once approved for commercial flight again.
Again, because of DOT inaction, consumers had to take the matter through the judicial system to force our government to do its job and let the public know the results of its tests and how the current rules were created.
5. No finalization of passenger protection rulemaking after more than four years
In one of the most ignominious failures, DOT has failed to produce new rules for requiring the airlines to reveal ancillary fees to consumers. There is no other section of the American economy where the consumers have to deal with incomplete pricing when faced with a purchase. When purchasing airline transportation, it is easy to compare airfares. However, comparison shopping for extra fees such as seat reservation fees or baggage check fees and a score of other hidden fees remains impossible. DOT, by dragging its feet, has done everything it can to stand on the airlines’ side of this discussion and has left passengers without the opportunity to comparison shop.
6. International airline antitrust immunity granted by DOT that is strangling competition
We all know that monopolies are not good for consumers. In the aviation world, there is already worrisome concentration. More than 80 percent of the domestic flights are flown by only four airlines. That is the fault of the Department of Justice.
However, DOT controls the international alliances when it comes to antitrust immunity. The international market is faced with airline alliances that result in three alliances controlling more than 80 percent of the international market. This lack of competition is created entirely by DOT. Antitrust immunity is granted without public input and based on disputed economic theories. Antitrust immunity allows foreign airlines to legally collude with domestic airlines to align prices, flights, and schedules to provide maximum profits for the airlines at the expense of international consumers.
7. Low penalties for airlines
When it comes to tarmac delays, DOT forces the airlines to pay draconian fines. That is why the aviation world, which once had more than 600 tarmac delays of more than three hours every year, today has less than a handful. Unfortunately, the zeal of DOT does not extend to violations of other consumer protection rules. The low penalties (and in some cases no penalties) for misrepresenting ticket costs, not providing passengers their rights in writing when they are faced with denied boarding, or providing notifications when luggage is lost. Evidently, airlines have calculated that it is better to jerk their customers around and fail to provide the required paperwork than it is to eventually pay a paltry fine to DOT.
Join Travelers United. Let’s see if we can get the DOT to change and protect passengers from airline greed.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 11 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.