Where is the DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg? Since Trump, airline passengers see no change in regulation, the ATC is ignored, and railroad safety is clearly compromised.
I have refrained from writing this column for several months. Anyone who works with me (or reads my columns) knows I am not fond of the current Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT). He seems to be in hiding, ironically behind an infrastructure wall. You see him regularly on TV talk shows, but what about his work for the people at DOT? He is a good spokesperson for building highways but he has failed at protecting airline travelers and, most recently, dealing with the recent train wreck.
His predecessor, Elaine Chao, did as much for consumers as he has during her time in the position. And her job instruction from the previous President was no new regulations unless two were removed. When Sec. Chao spoke, she was direct and clear. At the opening of infrastructure week, I met with her at a White House kickoff for an attempt to reopen the air traffic control (ATC) system discussions. Her words to me were not comforting, but they were the truth. There were no new regulations during her tenure except for redefining “unfair practices.”
Secretary Buttigieg has avoided contact with consumer advocates of all sorts. And on the one day that we had a virtual meeting, he smiled and “understood our issues.” Unfortunately, there has been nothing done to deal with consumer complaints. Yes, there are new Notices of Proposed Rulemakings (NPRM), but they will not be completed for at least a year and a half. Travelers need immediate action.
The DOT did remind airlines of the previously written rule regarding total refunds of the payments for flights canceled by the airlines. Plus, the delay matrix did clarify airline delay and cancellation actions.
Reminding airlines of the rules is not the same as enforcing the rules. As of today, no major US airline has been fined for lying to their passengers about refunds. And worse, there has been no change in the confusing world of airline flight credits. Every airline has its own way to handle flight credits. This adds consumer confusion, uncertainty, and questions about flight credits whenever they are issued.
Also during the pandemic, DOT Secretary Pete’s team created the matrix of what airlines would do when faced with delays and cancellations. Unfortunately, these issues have already been dealt with when they were mandated by DOT to be in writing as part of the airline customer service plan. There were no new changes to the rules of the air, but the publicity worked at the time. However, the Department has refrained from continuing their reminder to passengers of this matrix. When travelers see the rules, they can use them.
The following consumer protection issues need to be addressed and others can be solved with the stroke of a pen. The Secretary has not done any of these.
The consumer issues are not new. These have been unaddressed for at least the past decade. This recent article deals with the GAO report of five years ago. Here is another article that outlines actions that can be taken today with a stroke of the Secretary Pete’s pen. These easy changes to DOT’s regulations are:
- Change the mission of DOT to include passenger protections
- Display passenger rights at the airport on video and posters
- Put passenger compensation and DOT complaint information on computer-generated itineraries and boarding passes.
- Create common and uniform flight credit rules
- Obey the law and make family seating part of DOT’s rules
I’ll admit that the DOT Secretary has been an important part of Biden’s infrastructure push. But he has forgotten the passengers.
Forgetting the passengers is par for Sec. Pete’s list of actions that do not deal with the FAA’s structure. It must change with space travel and unmanned aerial systems in order to deal with the growth of both of those areas. The world of manned aviation is changing rapidly. I expect that there will be three different FAA divisions or new administrations — under 500 feet for UASs, the normal manned aviation section of 500 – 50,000 feet, and then Space. All will intersect in some way. But, the FAA has not even begun that process of separation. The FAA is studying it to death. We need a leader who sees into the future.
We need new systems of passenger protections.
- Make the consumer passenger advocate a separate paid position outside of normal DOT hiring. It should be treated as a part of the Inspector General’s office. The position should not be subject to pressure from the aviation sector.
- Explain the European and other international rules to Americans. So far, DOT has ignored EU rules and international rules. Passengers should be aware of treaty obligations.
- Clarify DOT legal policies to fight poor aviation practices. For too long the DOT complaint system, though one of the best in the government, has no real teeth. It will only get enforcement when the rules of complaints are in writing.
- As we have found out recently with near-misses recorded, it seems the Air Traffic Control system needs attention every two weeks or so. The country can no longer pretend that we have the world’s most modern and best ATC system. We need to reopen the discussion of reforming the ATC. Not only do we have to deal with the organization issues noted above, but we need to set up a new system of funding.
The DOT Secretary’s job requires him to walk and chew gum at the same time.
We have seen this clearly as Secretary Pete has been challenged when dealing (or not dealing) with the rail disaster that struck Palestine, OH, recently. The Secretary was asleep at the switch and took a follow-the-bureaucratic-system approach rather than leading the way to help for the locals affected by the crash. Knowing why is not enough. We need a DOT Secretary who leads and who is empathetic.
Unfortunately, Secretary Pete failed this test when it comes to helping the victims of the train crash. And he has failed taking care of aviation passengers. We need a new Secretary or we need him to hear the loud wake-up call.
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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.