Sec. Chao strips Consumer Protection Advisory Committee of all aviation consumer experts.
If you were around in 1975, you may remember that New York City was in dire financial straits. The Ford administration rejected the city’s bailout request, reported by the New York Daily News under one of the all-time memorable headlines: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao‘s appointments to the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee (ACPAC) brought the Daily News’ headline to mind: Her selection of Frances Smith as consumer representative indicates complete disdain for consumer interests. This is not to impugn Ms. Smith’s capabilities, integrity or intelligence; it simply reflects her record and affiliation as (1) lacking airline experience and (2) opposing regulations.
The appointment clearly conflicts with the two relevant statutory guidelines for this committee appointment. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 requires the Secretary of Transportation to appoint to the ACPAC four members with one representative each for U.S. airlines, airport operators, state or local governments and nonprofit public interest groups with expertise in consumer protection. And the Federal Advisory Committee Act requires that federal committees be “fairly balanced,” with members who actually reflect the viewpoints of their dedicated position statements. Thus, the designated consumer representative on ACPAP should have both experience with the airline industry and background with a track record in supporting consumer protections.
Ms. Smith, at least in my take, does not meet either element of the test: She is currently an adjunct fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a libertarian think tank that opposes government regulation of business, instead promoting the idea that the marketplace resolves issues better than the government. In 2007, Ms. Smith blogged that Consumer Reports “has a history of causing or contributing to significant consumer harm.” And her record includes almost nothing in the way of writing or acting on airline consumer issues.
In examining CEI writings, I’ve concluded that it is by no means on an anti-consumer side of all airline interests. I agree with its position on FAA modernization, even though many consumer advocate colleagues do not, and its position on passenger facility charges. But. it’s neither a travel-focused consumer organization in the sense that Travelers United, Flyers Rights and the Business Travel Coalition are, nor a broad-focus pro-consumer organization such as the National Consumers League, Consumers Union, PIRG, Consumer Action, the Consumer Federation of America and other similar groups.
Charlie Leocha was the previous consumer member, and as co-founder and president of Travelers United, he exemplifies the sort of consumer representative that the FAA and Advisory Committee acts specify. Charlie would be a good choice to continue in that position, but I can name a handful of others who could also fill the bill.
In the airline representative designee, Patricia Vercelli, general counsel, Airlines for America, the airlines will have a strong voice in opposing any regulations they don’t want. The committee does not need a “consumer representative” who will echo airline positions; it needs someone who will advocate for consumers where needed. And, sadly, regulations are often needed. The airline industry has an extended record of ignoring consumer abuses for so long that consumers, in frustration, turn to government for relief. When looking at many regulations that airlines complain about as onerous, one can only conclude, in the words of Miss Twiddle, “They brought it on themselves.”
You can expect some strong pushback on Ms. Smith’s nomination from the several consumer advocacy organizations that Congress had in mind as sources from which the ACPAP consumer representative should have been chosen. And, realistically, you can expect Secretary Chao to ignore any consumer group pushback. Ms. Smith’s unsuitability for the position will not come as a great surprise, and DOT has a record of ignoring congressional requirements it doesn’t like. The pushback will nevertheless be useful, because it will likely encourage Ms. Smith — and DODT — to think twice before taking positions antithetical to the interests of the consumers who so often have issues with arrogant and unresponsive airlines.
Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, Nov. 27, 2018
(c) 2018 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.