Will This Be the Year for Passenger Rights?
Christopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter
The travel industry doesn't exactly have a sterling reputation for keeping its promises.
That's true not just of the lofty low-price guarantees that some hotels offer but hedge with lawyerly fine print. It also applies to something as seemingly straightforward as an airline sticking to its published schedule. (Check the contract; it isn't required to.)
So travelers might be forgiven for having been a little skeptical last year when they were promised help in the form of long-overdue government regulation and laws that would compel airlines to treat them better and tell the truth about their fares.
Maybe it's a statement about the process, but the most commented-upon proposed rule had practically nothing to do with enhancing consumer protections. It was a new regulation to limit the consumption of peanuts on a plane.
"It was really amazing," said
Fitting, too. Today, with a president who seems to have taken a step back on regulation -- signing an executive order last month that initiates a government-wide review of the proposed rules already on the books -- and a
I asked the
"The political climate has changed," he said. "And that could affect the final rule."
The government wants to require airlines to include all required fees in the advertised price of its tickets, instead of breaking out each surcharge and creating the illusion of a cheaper fare. It would like more airlines to adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays, to report more data on delays and to notify customers promptly of delays.
As you can probably imagine, airlines are unhappy with the proposed rules. In comments filed with the department, several referred to a number of the new regulations as unwanted government interference, "harming rather than advancing the interests of both consumers and competition." Coming from an important but fragile business like the airlines, those words are likely to have some effect on the final rule, say observers.
There's also some momentum on the legislative side to give passengers more rights. The most prominent example is the Clear Airfare Amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill, proposed by Sen.
How much earlier is a matter of some debate. The latest version of the amendment reflects airline industry pressure on lawmakers to mandate disclosure only at the time of booking, which would basically codify the airlines' deception about the total cost of a ticket. And everything hinges on the passage of the ambitious reauthorization bill, now in its 17th incarnation.
"Consumers have a right to know what they're paying for," Menendez said to me last week. "Travelers already pay enough without being hit with hidden fees."
But the House leadership is sending mixed signals about passenger protections. Although Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman
Seems to me that some difficult decisions lie ahead. Should the government, which promised to protect airline passengers last year, do the expedient thing -- or the right thing?
But Dickinson's circumstances were extraordinary and tragic: His grandson was on life support after having suffered a head injury when his mother's boyfriend allegedly threw him across the room. This was Dickinson's last chance to see the child before life support was removed.
It would have been easy for Southwest to fly without Dickinson. But the pilot held the plane for 12 long minutes. "They can't go anywhere without me, and I wasn't going anywhere without you," he told Dickinson.
That wasn't the expedient thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.
Will the government and our elected officials have the courage to do the right thing, too?
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