Only after a passenger knocked the teeth out of a flight attendant did the Sec. DOT speak about upset travelers (or voters).
But, he got it wrong. We now have violence on planes. Yes, a frustrated passenger struck a flight attendant. But DOT, airline, airport, and the CDC rules drove that traveler to take violent action. It is unfortunate. Travelers United never condones violence. DOT and the FAA must examine their actions that served to provoke violence.
It is even more concerning that the FAA is fining passengers. At the same time, DOT has not fined a single airline for carrier violations of regulations during the pandemic that has resulted in more than 100,000 officially filed complaints.
We need leadership from the President and from the Secretary of Transportation that confesses to the passenger confusion created, the packing of planes, very limited airport retail, poor TSA staffing, and the lack of DOT regulation enforcement. It is a perfect prescription for violence on planes.
These acts of contrition would go a long way in soothing the raging beast of passenger service satisfaction. At every turn, passengers are admonished to be patient with the airline, airport, and TSA failures. It is time to start holding the service providers and America’s leadership to blame rather than the traveling public.
We need leadership that admits many of our problems are caused by abysmal passenger service. That poor service takes place while booking flights, getting flight credits approved by airlines, trying to buy a cup of coffee at an airport, going through the TSA airport security, boarding planes, and during flights. I couldn’t even get a cup of coffee on board my flight the last time I flew three weeks ago.
Airlines get treated with kid gloves and passengers get walloped with fines.
Travelers United has had it with DOT’s lack of enforcement of its own regulations. At the same time, the FAA has taken aggressive advantage under its “obey all flight crew instructions” mantra. We are sorry, but fining the airlines NOTHING (that’s correct — ZERO) for lying to passengers about pandemic refunds from the DOT enforcement office while fining passengers as much as $50,000-plus on the FAA side of the enforcement ledger is wrong. When passenger service was better and with more room for passengers there was no violence on planes.
Headlines splashed across newspapers and online never acknowledge the poor passenger service record of the entire aviation industry. However, Travelers United members can remember always seeing “passengers must be patient” repeated time after time. And, yes, Travelers United has published articles that have called for passenger patience. However, that was prior to hearing from the FAA about their heavy-handed fining of abused passengers.
The FAA fines passengers while the DOT provides no enforcement
Last week the Wall Street Journal listed passenger travails. Now, USAToday outlines the increase in FAA fines against “unruly” passengers. (NOTE: I have scoured airline contracts of carriage and have not found any clauses that note possible FAA fines.) The complaints come from a liberal application of the “obey all flight crew instructions” clause in contracts of carriage.
At the same time that DOT and FAA fines against individuals have soared, there have been no fines against airlines for passenger service failures during the entire pandemic. That includes the refund debacle for airline-canceled flights. And, historically, all DOT fines against airlines are listed as “consent orders.” Normally, half of the fines are forgiven if the issue is not repeated. Passengers rarely get punished with a consent order — I have never seen it happen.
Zero tolerance does not apply to airlines flouting regulations. It seems zero tolerance applies only to passengers behaving badly. Unfair airline punishment will almost always lead to violence on planes.
CDC confusion reigns. Customer service is non-existent. Now we are faced with violence on planes.
The USAToday article noted that Secretary Buttigieg has defended the FAA fines. He and the airlines take no responsibility for problems at airports and inflight. That’s wrong. The final straw is when a flight attendant is attacked. It may start with the airline’s refusal to allow a passenger to use his credit for another family member. It might begin with a family being separated from a toddler. Violence will simmer as passengers wait in long TSA lines. One can almost see the gears churning in their head wondering why it is OK to go without a mask in bars, restaurants, and shops but not in airports and airplanes.
Or, it may be the result of hearing the CDC director on TV extoll the virtues of vaccines — the way that they protect passengers from passing the virus and from getting infected. Then they arrive at the airport and find that masks are mandatory after hearing every day on the street that masks for the fully vaccinated are not required.
Either the President or the Secretary of Transportation needs to exhibit leadership. Science says that fully vaccinated people are not in danger of getting the virus. So, if those who are not vaccinated want to get sick, they are welcome to do so. Plus, the fully vaccinated have the right to wear a mask anywhere they want.
If vaccines work, why do we still need testing to return to the US after foreign travel? We need vaccine passports, not tests.
And now, my final issue that needs leadership. Get rid of the COVID-19 testing that is needed today to enter the US, even for the fully vaccinated. Plus, let’s get a vaccine passport created for US citizens. There is no more difference between someone who refuses to be vaccinated and must go through a different screening process and a person in the TSA PreCheck program. Both get preferential treatment. They can move through the system more quickly without violence on planes.
We have had almost six months of vaccinations that show us that the vaccines are performing well, even better than expected. Plus, vaccines are available for anyone who wants inoculation. It is time to remove the hard-to-understand need for a coronavirus test for fully vaccinated citizens returning from international travel.
Use the bully pulpit. Both President Biden and the Transportation Secretary should do so.
When I heard that Pete Buttigieg was going to be made Secretary of Transportation, I was pleased. Finally, we have a politician with future plans as the head of the DOT. I was certain that would help consumers and passengers. However, so far travelers have been treated the same as always. Flyers are ignored, crammed into tiny seats, faced with long lines, with families separated, and now fined because they dare to show their disgust with subhuman treatment.
Where is our President who promised change? When will we hear about consumer protections from the Secretary of Transportation who was once a bright star in the administration? Where are our representatives whose real job is to serve the public, not the industry?
It is time to hear both of these officials stand on the side of the people who are responsible for them to be in their positions. Both are political animals and both should understand the need to provide a clear and easy-to-understand path forward. Either vaccination works or it does not. Our leaders should not try to walk a middle path when science clearly shows vaccines are effective.
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.