By Christopher Elliott

The federal government is giving travelers an extra month to comment on proposed new consumer rules for airline passengers.

You now have until Sept. 23 to let the Transportation Department know what you think of the regulations, which will affect everything from how an airfare is quoted to whether peanuts will be served on a plane.

Even with my God-given gift for hyperbole, it would be hard to understate the importance of this initiative for air travelers, which is why I'm writing about it again.

The earlier column drew an unusually large number of responses, the most common one being, "What's the Web address for Regulation Room?"

Easy: .

Coming in a close second: reader concerns about the site's usability and usefulness.

"I was not able to access the site," said Jan Gaffney, a retiree from Estacada, Ore. She asked a friend in another state to try the address, and it produced an identical result: a blank screen.

Cynthia Farina, a professor of law at Cornell, admits that Regulation Room has had its share of technical difficulties. For example, during bursts of heavy online traffic, some of the comment features started to run slowly, resulting in long lag times. "Once we figured out what was going on, we responded by shutting down the problematic feature," she said.

Another critique is that Regulation Room's design is counterintuitive.

Joel Goldstein, a retired professor from Potomac who is a social psychologist by training and understands a thing or two about usability, was put off by the site's look and feel.

"It took me 15 minutes of searching and clicking before I could figure out how to leave a comment, which is why people come to the site in the first place," he said. "The process is like a scavenger hunt requiring the user to gather bits of information until the Holy Grail is reached."

He received what appeared to be a personal response from Mary Newhart, the project's executive director, who, in e-mail, acknowledged some of the limitations of soliciting comments from readers through a website.

"Technology presents opportunities and barriers to the goal of expanding effective public participation in the rulemaking process," she wrote. "We hope our project will shed some light on what works and what doesn't."

Perhaps one of the harshest criticisms was of Regulation Room's practice of summarizing reader comments in addition to sending them directly to the Department of Transportation. Readers also took issue with the site's use of polling, which they felt undermined the rulemaking comment process.

"This is not public participation," said A. Rani Parker, a reader from Rockville. "It is a voting poll. Very disappointing."

Farina says that the polling was intended to funnel users to the right place on the site. As for the summaries, that's how the Transportation Department wanted it, and with good reason.

In the past, she explained, the federal government would receive hundreds, even thousands, of comments with "little useful information for rulemakers," she said. "With a summary, they can concentrate on the real meat of the comments: people's questions, concerns, competing arguments, suggestions."

And one more thing: The summaries will be run past users again, to ensure that nothing is missed when a synopsis is being created, according to Farina.

So where does that leave us, the traveling public? With a few weeks to go before the comments are closed, we have, on the one hand, a new and unproven site that is aggregating our opinions about a massive government rulemaking. On the other hand, we can still submit comments through the traditional rulemaking process, either by mail or by fax, in person or through the federal e-rulemaking portal at Search for docket number DOT-OST-2010-0140.

I've been mulling this question for a few months, and as much as I admire Regulation Room, I'm also a bit troubled that the site would be beta-tested on the most important rules change for air travelers in a generation. If this were a Broadway show, wouldn't that be like doing a read-through on opening night?

The Transportation Department doesn't see it that way. Cornell tested the site on two previous rules and then redesigned Regulation Room before using it for the current process, according to Bill Adams, a department spokesman. Given the importance of the proposed aviation regulations, planners felt that it was better to use the site while developing it.

"The aviation consumer protection rule is just the kind of high-visibility rule affecting so many travelers that makes Regulation Room an important tool," he said.

I still think the site is worth a visit, even if it's just to read the helpful plain-English summaries of the proposed rules. But unless you want your opinion summarized and sent to the government, I'd also recommend that you submit your comments the old-fashioned way.

You can bet the airline industry will.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.


© U.S. Christopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter

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