Action that the new DOT Consumer Advocate should take as soon as possible (Part 1)
The new Department of Transportation (DOT) Consumer Advocate has been working for about six months. There have already been five meetings with the largest consumer advocacy groups. So far, the creation of the DOT office has been a success in terms of consumer access to DOT.
Two big issues dominate current consumer discussions with the DOT consumer advocate — enactment of rules to allow families to sit together and an FAA examination of personal space on aircraft. Both issues have been frustrating for consumer advocates.
The DOT is stonewalling the Families Sitting Together portion of the FAA bill.
The refusal of DOT to set any rules for Families Sitting Together, even with legislation directing the DOT to act, has been maddening. However, two little words have allowed the DOT to refuse to take any action dealing with family seating — “if appropriate.”
Even with children as young as 3 now being subject to separation from parents, DOT feels regulation is not appropriate. With an increase in sexual predators on planes reported by the FBI and supposed “family values” voiced by many members of Congress, DOT refuses to take action.
The second major consumer effort is the ground rules for the upcoming FAA evacuation testing of aircraft.
Consumers are trying to set up rules for the upcoming FAA evacuation testing. That testing will be used to determine future FAA seat size and pitch regulations.
These tests will be taking place in Oklahoma at the end of November and in early December. Even with language in the latest FAA bill, the Administration has not coordinated with consumers or flight attendants and mechanics among other organizations listed in the law.
The FAA is not even following the law as it begins testing according to Tennesee Congressman Cohen. The FAA is planning to conduct evacuation testing using 720 participants over 12 days in November but reportedly will not include individuals under 18, over 60, or with travel-limiting disabilities, service animals or young children. “This is completely unacceptable and unrealistic,” the Congressman wrote in a letter to the FAA leaders.
Plus, no rules for the testing have been revealed. And, consumer groups have not been granted observer status for the testing. The maneuvering is ongoing as consumers, the DOT officials, FAA testers, flight attendants and other groups are discussing how to overcome the testing impasse.
Major consumer groups are preparing for the next phase of advocacy beyond these issues.
The last FAA Bill has a litany of consumer protection issues that have been ignored for over a year. Some of these will be part of the upcoming meetings. Again, DOT action is already late, but without advocacy action, no part of the law will be enforced.
Here are four of the major consumer issues in the law that have, so far, been ignored by the DOT. The FAA Bill of 2018 was passed on October 5, 2018. (Sorry for the legalese, however, readers should see what we have to deal with in DC-speak.)
SEC. 414. INVOLUNTARY CHANGES TO ITINERARIES.
Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall review the rate at which air carriers change passenger itineraries more than 24 hours before departure, where the new itineraries involve additional stops or depart 3 hours earlier or later than originally scheduled and compensation or other suitable air transportation is not offered. In conducting the review, the Secretary shall consider the compensation and alternative travel options provided or offered by the air carrier in such situations.
The Secretary may consult with air carriers and the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection, established under section 411 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (49 U.S.C. 42301 prec. note), to assist in conducting the review and providing recommendations. There should be a report not later than 90 days after the date the review.
The study has not been completed or even started as far as consumer groups know.
SEC. 406. CONSUMER INFORMATION ON ACTUAL FLIGHT TIMES.
STUDY.—The Secretary of Transportation shall conduct a study on the feasibility and advisability of modifying regulations contained in section 234.11 of title 14, Code of Federal Regulations, to ensure that—
(1) a reporting carrier (including its contractors), during the course of a reservation or ticketing discussion or other inquiry, discloses to a consumer upon reasonable request the projected period between the actual wheels-off and wheels-on times for a reportable flight; and
(2) a reporting carrier displays, on the public internet website of the carrier, information on the actual wheels-off and wheels-on times during the most recent calendar month for a reportable flight.
REPORT.—Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall submit to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate a report on the results of the study.
SEC. 421. REFUNDS FOR OTHER FEES THAT ARE NOT HONORED BY A COVERED AIR CARRIER.
Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall promulgate regulations that require each covered air carrier to promptly provide a refund to a passenger of any ancillary fees paid for services related to air travel that the passenger does not receive, including on the passenger’s scheduled flight, on a subsequent replacement itinerary if there has been a rescheduling, or for a flight not taken by the passenger.
SEC. 427. CONSUMER PROTECTION REQUIREMENTS RELATING TO LARGE TICKET AGENTS.
Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall issue a final rule to require large ticket agents to adopt minimum customer service standards.
The purpose of the final rule shall be to ensure that, to the extent feasible, there is a consistent level of consumer protection regardless of where consumers purchase airfares and related air transportation services. Rules for airlines and tickets agents should be consistent.
These provisions of the current FAA Bill have been passed by Congress with arduous efforts by Travelers United personnel and other consumer advocacy groups. However, no action has been taken after a year by DOT.
- Families Sitting Together
- Evacuation testing
- Consumer protections for airline itinerary changes
- Actual flight time reports
- Refund of fees for services not provided
- Standardization of airline and ticket agent consumer protection rules
There are more coming. I will cover them in an article next week.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 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.