Four airline consumer wins — low-hanging fruit for the DOT Secretary


What should consumers ask of the Secretary of Transportation?


airline consumer wins

Secretary of Transportation, Peter Buttigieg

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.

DOT promised Travelers United a meeting with the Secretary. However, for the past six years, consumers have not had a chance to meet with any Secretary of Transportation. This stretch of time has included the last three DOT Secretary tenures during the Obama, Trump, and so far the Biden administration.

Secretary Buttigieg is unique among recent transportation secretaries

For the first time, a youthful politician occupies the position of leading the DOT. We all know that Secretary Pete looks beyond simply this transportation posting. And, the way that Travelers United sees it, his future path provides airline consumer wins. He must listen to airline consumers to hear their problems and concerns.

Travelers United wants to focus on low-hanging airline policy fruit

We see four areas where the Secretary can change the system and get airline consumer wins with the stroke of a pen. We do not want to involve congressional committees initially. There is plenty that has already been accomplished over the past decade that can be used to immediately change the status quo.
1. Include consumer protections in the mission of DOT
In the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) Bill of 2018, the position of consumer advocate makes consumer protection part of DOT’s mission. This position, according to Congress, provides a focus on consumer issues. We now have the position, but the drafters of the bill expected more.
The mission of DOT currently does not mention consumer protections. However, the Department under Buttigieg can fix this as quickly as Secretary Chao changed the mission statement when she was appointed Transportation Secretary. The current mission statement needs the following last two-sentence paragraph added below for a major airline consumer win. Of course, this start can be edited.
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.
This simple request doesn’t require any new legislation. The Secretary of Transportation could protect millions of passengers in a handful of months. The Transportation Secretary must choose to put the traveling public benefits in front of those of airlines.
Posters at airports inform passengers of their basic rights. In Europe, posters display passenger rights next to Jetways and above baggage carousels. Travelers United, back in its early days, even came up with a way that the private sector can absorb all costs. Plus, airports can display posters on a voluntary basis. Voluntarily displayed passenger rights posters in Europe deal with compensation for lost/delayed/damaged luggage, denied boarding compensation, and notification of European Union delay rules at international gateways.
Another easy and cost-free notification of passenger rights can be printed on all computer-generated boarding passes and on all flight itineraries. In the past, the Warsaw Convention rules printed on the backs of all ticket stock informed passengers. This simple rule ensures that consumers know their rights. The following sample shows what the notification would look like.
Passengers can claim up to $3,500 compensation in cases of lost, damaged, or delayed checked baggage; up to $1,350 in cash for denied boarding compensation, and other compensation for delayed international flights. File complaints with DOT at http://airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm
3. Common refund and flight credit rules for the pandemic period and no flight credit expiration dates

You are being secretly taxed at airportsEach 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.


READ ALSO:
3 ways DOT should post basic passenger travel rights at airports
Why we need a common flight credit rule for airlines from DOT, now


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