Wanted: A DOT working in the public interest

DOT is failing to serve the public interest and openly serving the airline interests

public interestIf anyone examines the founding documents of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the deregulation of the airlines through the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA), they will find that the primary mission of DOT should be to serve the public interest and to ensure safety.

The Department of Transportation Act (Public Law 89-670) was created with the mission to “…develop and recommend to the President and the Congress for approval national transportation policies and programs to accomplish these objectives with full and appropriate consideration of the needs of the public, users, carriers, industry, labor, and the national defense.”

The mission of DOT is to protect the needs of the public, not the airlines

The introduction of the ADA never mentions the protection of airlines. It focuses on the public interest and safety. For consumers, Pubic Law 95-504 specifically notes the mission the act includes:

The availability of a variety of adequate, economic, efficient, and low-price services by air carriers without unjust discriminations, undue preferences or advantages, or unfair or deceptive practices, the need to improve relations among, and coordinate transportation by, air carriers, and the need to encourage fair wages and equitable working conditions.

The placement of maximum reliance on competitive market forces and on actual and potential competition…

The development and maintenance of a sound regulatory environment which is responsive to the needs of the public and in which decisions are reached promptly…

The prevention of unfair, deceptive, predatory, or anti-competitive practices in air transportation, and the avoidance of — “(A) unreasonable industry concentration, excessive market domination, and monopoly power … that would tend to allow one or more air carriers unreasonably to increase prices, reduce services, or exclude competition in air transportation.”

Get refunds in cash when airlines cancel your flightSomehow this public interest and safety guarantee that was envisioned by the development of the DOT has been quietly changed during the last administration. The elimination of any protection of the public passengers in DOT’s mission statement has been eliminated. There was no public discussion or congressional instruction. Simply, DOT erased passenger protections and enforcement of regulations from their mission.

A consumer ombudsman was included in the last FAA bill. It is forgotten in the mission statement.

Congress specifically included the creation of a consumer ombudsman in the last FAA Funding bill. We are still waiting to see it written into the mission statement. This is the DOT mission today.

To ensure America has the safest, most efficient and modern transportation system in the world, which boosts our economic productivity and global competitiveness and enhances the quality of life in communities both rural and urban. (Updated June 1, 2021)

DOT has not prioritized airline consumer protections during the pandemic.

What concerns Travelers United most is that these changes continue during the current administration. To date, not one domestic airline has been fined for lying to passengers. Only after direct advocate action showing DOT where the paragraphs in current regulations mandate refunds of airfares did DOT insist that airlines enforce the law as written.

However, the regulations were written with no anticipation of COVID. Plus, the political pressure put on passengers to cancel flights themselves was enormous. Many travelers opted out of flying because of a sense of national interest. Those passengers who listed the President of the United States, CDC, and their spokespeople are still suffering. Congress never changes the law. So, passengers have to deal with airlines who treat the pandemic as though it was a long snowstorm. That means airlines feel as though they have done a favor to would-be passengers. The customers involved had no choice, according to administration experts.

Join Our Membership Program TodayDOT has become openly hostile to the public interest. Where are DOT’s airline consumer protections?

Here are some ways that DOT is failing to protect the public after the current administration has been in power for almost a year and a half. It is time to start helping the American public and making the public interest a priority for DOT.

Families sitting together and refund of checked baggage fees when baggage is delayed.

Even when laws are passed by Congress and signed by the President, such as the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, DOT has not taken action to implement consumer protections – specifically the Families Sitting Together and the Refund of Baggage Fees in the case of delays of baggage delivery.

It’s hard to believe, but it has been more than five years since DOT was instructed by Congress to act on these laws. Families and airline passengers are still waiting for these lawfully passed aviation consumer protections.

Validation of aircraft emergency evacuation capabilities

Consumer advocates filed a federal court case by consumers that requests results of FAA testing of emergency aircraft evacuations. The court instructed the FAA to provide the data to the public. Even with specific instruction from the federal court, after almost three years we are still waiting. Consumers still have not received the report of testing.

The FAA claims it has completed and demonstrated the ability to evacuate airplanes in emergencies within 90 seconds, with less personal passenger space while the size of the public has increased. We want to see the results of the testing. Consumers do not believe DOT and the FAA.

aviation passenger protectionsEnforcement of DOT rules and regulations

After the horrific beating and dragging of Dr. Dao from a United Airlines flight, the airline was exonerated even though they failed to follow their own customer service rules, their contract of carriage, and DOT regulations.

Delayed decisions on properly filed consumer complaints

As the replacement for the state and local judicial system for consumers, the public should have the expectation of timely decisions when consumers file grievances with DOT. Some recent consumer complaints filed with DOT were left to languish for up to three and four years. That can hardly be considered timely. None of the recent complaints was handled in less than a year. DOT’s own rules require airlines to provide a substantive response to complaints within 60 days; however, DOT does not follow its own response-time rules.

Open hostility to airline consumer protections

A recent letter from DOT to the Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee clearly punctuates DOT’s anti-consumer stance. This letter demonstrated our government’s belief that the DOT’s primary role is one of “advancing aviation efficiency.” The letter goes on to indicate that the DOT is committed “to reducing regulatory burdens to enhance safety, reduce unnecessary costs on the economy, and strengthen American competitiveness.” That is not the DOT’s job. DOT’s job is to protect the public interest and enhance safety.

Many of these actions above can be enacted by the DOT Sec. with the stroke of a pen.

Sadly, nothing has happened, though the bureaucracy is ready. We need basic leadership that can move consumer issues to the forefront. Travelers United has worked to pass the laws. We need real leadership to implement them and enforce these rules..