Common carriers laws let consumers know the full cost of flying
The largest consumer groups in the United States came together to speak about the need for regulation of the airlines. Part of that discussion concerns the enforcement of common carriers law. This industry enjoys a special place in the American judicial structure — they are virtually exempt from the state and local court system. Instead, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has the responsibility to protect America’s consumers from the airline industry. Airlines need to follow the rules of common carriers. Here is a portion of the comments that were just submitted to DOT regarding the common carriers laws and their enforcement here in the US.
There are three requirements for common carriers:
Non-discrimination; duty of care; and public pricing. Who are common carriers?
The DOT has been delinquent in its responsibility to see that these common carriers’ requirements are met. Basic common carriers’ legal protections have been developed over hundreds of years. They are being ignored by the DOT to the benefit of the airlines and at the expense of consumers. Congress has finally called out DOT. In the last FAA funding bill, Congress required that DOT report on itinerary changes and their effect on consumers. Congress has also required DOT to begin a sexual harassment study. And, DOT now plans to look at the transparency of ancillary fees once again. It is sad when the keeper of consumer protections has to be forced to protect those who they are mandated to protect.
These are examples of how the DOT has failed to ensure common carriers’ non-discrimination. DOT has not promulgated regulations enforcing the Airline Deregulation Act’s non-discrimination requirements. This includes ensuring that individuals with disabilities are able to access air travel without undue burden. DOT has not implemented systems to assist the blind in using airport kiosks. Plus, only after an almost four-year delay, DOT only just this year started requiring airlines to report on damage to wheelchairs and mobility devices.
Duty of care
Common carriers rules and regulations that once protected passengers from airline irregular operations. Airline actions can result in a break of a trip or an extended delay. Passengers have been allowed to languish. Airlines today disclaim their responsibility for providing overnights and meals for passengers delayed or facing airline cancellations. Today, the airlines’ failure to adhere to schedules results in many missed connections. Misconnections harm the flying public. When missed connections are between different airlines, passengers sometimes must pay large cancellation or change fee fines. The airlines often pay no compensation. Plus, they keep the passenger’s money, sometimes for the entire booked trip, including return travel. This should stop. In the case of IT failures, airlines are allowed to treat the failures as if they were an “Act of God.” These delays clearly are not. They are failures of the airlines to protect their passengers and to deliver service. Technology problems should fall under the duty of care and passengers should be compensated for delays and flight changes. They should not be faced with a runaround and having to meet deadlines for rebooking flights imposed by the very airlines that caused the problem in the first place.
Common carriers law notes that all prices should be public. Prices must be provided to passengers and to all ticket agents with no restrictions. Before computers, complete airline prices were mandated to be posted by the door of the airline company offices. Today’s Full-Fare Rule requires airfares and all mandatory airline charges and government fees to be included in advertised airfares. This is a beginning but still falls short of what is needed for the free market to fully operate to deliver for the benefit of consumers. Today, airlines only publicly price airfares. Travelers need to know all ancillary fees prior to buying any partial-price airfare. The complex system of exemptions and exceptions can result in a pricing system that is virtually impossible to navigate. These systems harm airline consumers who cannot easily calculate prices for comparison shopping. This refusal to publish open and public data harms the IT and software industry. Pricing data cannot serve consumers. There is no limit to the number of fees. Thus, there can be no fair airfare data system for the public to use to compare the cost of travel.
If airlines want to charge fees, so be it. But, they must tell passengers what they are before they buy their tickets
However, DOT two years ago stated that they were stopping any discussion of full disclosure of pricing. This makes it so that consumers cannot compare full prices for airline travel across airlines. Travelers United has been working to get the discussions of honest public pricing back on the table at DOT. Now, Congress has instructed DOT to examine how to let consumers know the full cost of travel. This should include baggage, seat reservations, family seating charges, and several other ancillary fees. Airlines are still keeping these fees off our data screens.
DOT noted that knowing the full cost of travel is not a major benefit to consumers. We all beg to differ. Even the DOT needs to know the full cost of any action they are planning on taking. And, our past President, when he was a real estate tycoon, always knew the exact prices for construction and property purchases. Why is knowing the full price of flying of little benefit to those who fly and who are purchasing airline tickets? Knowing the common carriers costs is always of benefit in the free market. We airline passengers would like to see some of those market forces we hear mentioned time after time by the airlines to swing our way. Pricing is perhaps the most important component of the free market system. Let’s get it back front and center so consumers can make educated decisions.
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.