A collection of the top consumer groups met with Sec. Buttigieg for the first time in 200+ days
Representatives of several leading US consumer groups met with Sec. Buttigieg recently. He is the head of the Department of Transportation (DOT). The advocacy groups urged action on the most pressing consumer protection priorities affecting consumers flying commercial airlines. It was the first time representatives of consumer groups were granted a meeting with a U.S. Secretary of Transportation in nearly eight years.
The reluctance of Secretaries of Transportation to meet with the country’s largest consumer groups and its leading travel advocates is mysterious. Since the departure of DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, there has not been a consumer group meeting with the head of DOT.
Though there were no group meetings, Travelers United (and perhaps other advocacy groups) did meet with the transportation secretary, but nothing changed. And, the coalition of consumer organizations never met together with the last two DOT leaders.
Both the Obama and the Trump DOT leaders ignored consumer leaders after Sec. LaHood left
The second Obama administration was void of any consumer group meetings or completed consumer protection action. And at the start of the Trump administration, Travelers United learned that there would be no new consumer protection regulations. Sec. Chao, during the Trump administration, did make some important pro-consumer changes.
A consumer advocate was appointed and the DOT website was improved. Plus, during the still-ongoing pandemic, the DOT Office of Consumer Protection focused on passenger refunds. DOT required airlines to refund airline tickets if airlines canceled flights. However, when travelers canceled first, they only received airline flight credits.
Most consumer protection action took place on editorial pages and in Congress during this period. And finally, after more than 200 days of the new Biden Administration, consumer groups met with Sec. Buttigieg. The Secretary of Transportation found time to spend time with this group of consumer advocates.
Consumer groups met with Sec. Buttigieg. The meeting set an optimistic tone for pro-consumer changes
The National Consumers League (NCL) urged the secretary to make consumer protection a strategic priority for the DOT. They stressed that due to federal preemption and previous court decisions, DOT is the sole consumer protection agency that flyers can turn to for redress from airline industry abuses. NCL further urged that consumer advocacy and passenger rights organizations be given access to policy-making processes at DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on par with the airlines the agencies regulate.
Travel Fairness Now presented the groups’ position on ticket refunds and expiring travel credits given to travelers related to COVID- 19 coronavirus cancellations in lieu of full refunds. The organization shared the groups’ consensus position that DOT must immediately ensure that ticket vouchers issued during the COVID-19 pandemic will never expire.
DOT’s upcoming “Airline Ticket Refunds” notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) must ensure that airlines can never again deceptively steer consumers towards ticket vouchers when they have a right to a full refund because of airline-initiated flight cancellations. In addition, DOT must ensure that consumers holding non-refundable tickets who canceled travel plans because of COVID-19 are protected. Those who chose not to fly during COVID should not be punished. This is whether their cancellation is due to their doctor’s recommendation, local, state, or federal health regulations. Other medical guidance, be provided refunds if they cannot or do not want to use the voucher they were given.
Consumer Reports reported on problems with family travel
Consumer Reports urged DOT to start a rulemaking dealing family travel. Families with children 13 and under should always sit together on flights without incurring additional fees or purchasing tickets at higher fares. Despite a 2016 congressional bill for DOT to address this issue, Congress has been ignored. A Freedom of Information Act request from Consumer Reports indicates children as young as one, two, or three years old have been assigned seats alone. Obviously, such policies also comprise evacuation safety and COVID-19 health protocols, and can even put children at risk of sexual assaults.
FlyersRights.org pressed the case for DOT to initiate a rulemaking for minimum seat sizes. FlyersRights.com also pushed for an update to emergency evacuation standards. They want the project to be completed within one year. Passengers are getting larger while airlines are aggressively shrinking seat legroom and width for decades. Passenger space is currently completely unregulated. The FAA has steadfastly resisted any minimum seat-size standards. A 2015 passenger group rulemaking petition, an adverse appeal court decision, a 2018 Congressional mandate, a May 2020 report by FAA’s Emergency Evacuation Advisory Rulemaking Committee, and a September 2020 DOT Inspector General’s report have all criticized current FAA emergency evacuation testing standards as outdated and badly flawed.
After consumer groups met with Sec. Buttigieg, there is more hope for airline consumer protections
After consumer groups met with Sec. Buttigieg, Consumer Action concluded for the advocacy groups. “It was immensely gratifying for consumer advocates to be welcomed to discuss our concerns directly with Secretary Buttigieg,” the Consumer Action leader noted. “Now we have trust that the DOT will make full use of its critical consumer protection responsibility to ensure that the flying public is treated fairly by airlines. What a change a new administration makes. Just in time, as millions of Americans take to the skies again! We look forward to continued collaboration with the Secretary and his talented team.”
For information on additional priorities and requests of DOT, please feel free to contact Charles Leocha, Travelers United – [email protected] – 617.901.7776 – www.travelersunited.org
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 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.