What should consumers ask of the Secretary of Transportation?
When Travelers United has a chance to meet the Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT) we want to be ready with a clear message. We wait patiently to have a chance to share the passengers’ points of view. However, so far, Secretary Buttigieg only had time for national talk shows, infrastructure, and airlines.
DOT assured us of a meeting, but when? And, for how long? Plus, what are we going to discuss? Travelers United wants to present airline consumer wins that will burnish the Secretary as consumer-friendly.
NOTE: This column is strictly the thoughts of Travelers United. Any other consumer groups have not publicly endorsed any of these positions. This post has been edited to eliminate any confusion about other consumer organizations that have been involved in consumer protection efforts.
Secretary Buttigieg is unique among recent transportation secretaries
Travelers United wants to focus on low-hanging airline policy fruit
1. Include consumer protections in the mission of DOT
DOT Mission: 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.DOT is also the main consumer protector in the US aviation system. The Department guarantees a forum to process consumer claims and ensures passenger protections.
2. Display consumer rules on posters and videos at airports and on computer-generated boarding passes and flight itineraries. These easy airline consumer wins can be seen by the public at all airports.
3. Common refund and flight credit rules for the pandemic period and no flight credit expiration dates
Each American network carrier offers different rules and expiration dates for airline flight credits. Southwest Airlines places a limitation on these flight credits of two years. Some airlines simply apply an expiration date of the end of 2022. Others vary expiration dates. Travelers United supports no expiration dates.
Airlines already get the use of the money for free as long as they hold the flight credits. No justification exists for having pandemic flight credits or any pandemic travel credit expire. The money belongs rightfully to the travel consumer.
Though many think that DOT has its hands tied by the airline deregulation act, they do not. DOT can act in the best interests of the country and take necessary action. A simple dictate from DOT similar to the instruction that required airlines to serve all airports during the pandemic suffices. The plague of different airline credits must end. Plus, the credits should not expire, The credit value should function just like a store gift card.
4. Initiate rulemaking for families sitting together. The law was passed as part of the 2016 FAA bill.
In a post written on December 4, 2020, I noted, “The Department of Transportation (DOT) instructed by Congress to solve this problem through rulemaking refuses action. However, Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation, clearly challenged Congress.
Secretary Buttigieg’s staff needs to begin a rulemaking regarding the Families Sitting Together portion of the already-passed FAA Bill of 2016. The bill passed by Congress and signed by the President provides low-hanging fruit.
Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall review and, if appropriate, establish a policy directing all air carriers … that enable a child, who is age 13 or under on the date an applicable flight is scheduled to occur, to be seated in a seat adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13…
After a DOT rulemaking study, this rule will fulfill DOT’s mandate. Congress clearly passed the bill and DOT has an obligation to start a Department rulemaking.
Secretary Buttigieg can accomplish all four airline consumer wins with the stroke of a pen
A clear path to real airline consumer wins at the start of the administration can happen. These low-hanging airline consumer protections already debated or passed by Congress can be enacted immediately. Secretary Buttigieg can move off square one and get some real change in place as soon as possible. Easy, effective airline consumer wins help the entire aviation industry and passengers.
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.