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Flyers’ rights hit turbulence
The Editorial Board, USA TODAY Published 6:18 p.m. ET June 7, 2018 | Updated 6:55 p.m. ET June 7, 2018
How airlines could unload consumer protections with the aid of Congress and the Transportation Department: Our view
Think summer travel can’t get any worse? Well, fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
If airlines (along with their allies in Congress and the Transportation Department) get their way, you would no longer learn the total cost of your tickets upfront, and bait-and-switch advertising could make a comeback. Your ability to comparison shop at online travel sites might be curtailed. And you would lose some of the meager consumer protections you have, including 24 hours to cancel or change a reservation for free.
As a massive airline measure moves through Congress, and the Trump administration seeks to repeal regulations across government, airlines have their best chance in years to kill or water down key consumer protections.
AIRLINES FOR AMERICA: Adopt flyer-friendly changes
Among the most troubling changes is repeal of a requirement, imposed in 2012, that airlines and travel websites list your total fare — including federal taxes and fees — upfront. These fees and taxes can add more than 20% to a typical $300 ticket, and passengers want to know, as soon as they see a fare, what the ticket actually costs, not some “base fare” that masks the true price.
Airlines battled the rule in court and lost. Since then, they’ve lobbied Congress to kill it. In April, the House obliged. Consumers’ best hope is that the Senate has not gone along with it.
Another worrisome change threatens travel agents, major online travel websites and the “meta-search” sites that allow consumers to shop for the best prices. On its face, the provision — sponsored by Rep. Dan Lipinski, D- Ill. — sounds reasonable: It requires that the online sites give ticket buyers the same information — from seating configurations to cancellation policies to itinerary changes — that airlines provide.
Trouble is, the airlines control information on seats, last-minute changes and other details, and have long opposed being forced to share it. How online sites could provide information they don’t have is a mystery. If their websites could no longer function, passengers would lose the ability for easy comparison shopping.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sponsored a similar, though slightly less threatening, measure in the Senate.
While lawmakers usually crow about their pro-consumer actions, neither Lipinski nor Klobuchar would defend their provisions when we asked. Could it be their actions were swayed by major airlines back home?
Chicago, part of Lipinski’s district, is home to United Airlines. And Minneapolis is a major hub for Delta Air Lines, which happens to be Klobuchar’s top campaign donor, giving more than $58,000 through its political action committee, employees and their immediate families since 2013.
Flyers could still avoid the worst if the Senate, which still must approve the full airline legislation, can remember that members of Congress are supposed to work for constituents, not the airlines.
Both the House and the Senate have included some provisions consumers would love. But the Transportation Department wants to eliminate most of them, including bans on passengers yakking on cellphones midair and airlines “bumping” passengers who’ve already boarded.
Can anyone forget passenger David Dao being dragged off a United flight last year? The DOT finds these mandates “unnecessary and counterproductive.”
Worse yet, the agency has asked airlines what other rules they’d like to get rid of, and airlines have sent a long wish list.
You have to wonder: Has anyone at DOT been on a plane lately?
The industry wields lobbying clout and campaign contributions that dwarf anything travelers can muster and usually succeed in quashing customer interests. But this year, with help from Congress and the DOT, might mark a low point, unless flyers speak up loud and clear.
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.