Department of Transportation Consumer Issues—What’s Next

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

All of the consumer advocates I know predict that the incoming the Biden Department of Transportation (DoT) will be more pro-consumer than the current one. That’s a pretty low bar, but I’m optimistic. Still, the current administration has another two months, and I believe it will tackle at least one important and relatively non-controversial issue before it closes up shop. Beyond that, the tougher issues will remain for a new DoT.

The one issue that the current DoT is likely to settle is to develop uniform rules for passenger protections during the plague:

  • Even some airlines are asking for rules requiring wearing of masks during all phases of air travel except when travelers are eating and drinking. Although most airlines have adopted mask policies on their own, the force of government regulation would make those rules more easily enforced than just company policies. Given the virtually unanimous support for such a rule, I’m really surprised DoT hasn’t already acted.

In a parallel move, many people on all sides of the political spectrum would like to see official government regulations about Covid tests—designating which are acceptable as a basis for allowing people on a flight and entry to a destination area and such. Ideally, these regulations should be developed in cooperation with key European and Asian authorities to assure their acceptance worldwide. I don’t see much in the way of objection to such rules, but so far DoT has hesitated.

  • A second issue that the outgoing DoT may tackle is another with broad political and public support: a requirement that airlines seat traveling families together without requiring them to pay seat-assignment fees. This is important both to families and to hapless solo travelers who would prefer not to be seated next to someone else’s bratty kid. DoT need not specify precise procedures; only that each airline must develop its own plan to assure that families sit together no matter what fares they pay.

This lame-duck DoT might be inclined to undo two existing protections that are popular with consumers but not with airlines: full-fare price advertising and the tarmac-delay rule.

  • Currently, airlines are required to include all applicable taxes and fees in any quoted airfare. Absent this rule, airlines would be free to post low-ball prices that are a lot less than travelers actually have to pay. To me and many other consumer advocates, the gold standard of price advertising is “what you see is what you pay,” or WYSIWYP. We’d hate to lose this valuable protection, but we might.
  • Airlines would also like to get rid of the rule that requires them to allow travelers to deplane in the event of extra-long tarmac delays. If they don’t comply, airlines suffer stiff fines. DoT issued this rule in 2000 in response to horror stories about delays up to 10 hours during which passengers had no access to water and toilets became overloaded. Airlines strongly opposed it, claiming—with some justification—that it would have unintended consequences.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the outgoing DoT rescind both rules. If it does, I’m sure that the consumer community would ask the incoming DoT to put them right back.

The new DoT will have to contend with some knottier problems that it can presumably tackle by itself. To me, the most important is the need for force majeure exemptions for cancellation and other fees even when consumers cancel first. Another important consumer protection would require modification to the Airline Deregulation Act to remove the current provision that limits consumers’ legal action to federal courts.

Although not directly related to air travel, the new DoT—and Congress—will have to deal with the blivet that is Amtrak. Just about anyone involved can issue a laundry list of what’s wrong, but hardly anyone has any sensible suggestions about just what sort of passenger rail system the US should have outside the Northeast Corridor and how to manage and pay for it. I’d like to see some real action, but I’m not at all sure a solution will be found within my lifetime. Feh.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s rail travel website at Rail-Guru.com.)

(c) 2020 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.– November 9, 2020

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