As part of the upcoming must-do bill in Congress to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration Agency, a partnership of the leading consumer advocacy organizations has given Congress a list of consumer protections that should be included. It’s a long list, but there’s nothing in it that isn’t both reasonable and necessary. As we point out—I’m a very minor member of that partnership—the airlines took more than $50 billion to help keep them afloat during the pandemic and ready to resume when it was over, but all too much of that money got used for something other than keeping ready to resume full-scale flying. Their inability to cope with holiday traffic last winter was a truly bipartisan failure, irritating red state and blue state voters alike, leaving a possible opening to require improvements. We probably won’t get everything we ask for, but we’re still asking.
Perhaps the most obvious need is a legally binding requirement that airlines provide both “care,” including meals and accommodations, when appropriate, and compensation for passengers on delayed and canceled flights. Current European requirements—which are working well—can serve as a template.
Another less obvious approach is to mandate “reciprocity” among all airlines: If a flight is significantly delayed or canceled for any reason, passengers on that flight should be transferred to another line at no extra cost if the second line could transport the travelers more quickly than the original line. This is a retro idea that was formerly in tariff “Rule 240” prior to deregulation. It worked well back then, when average load factors were around 60 percent; although it would be less effective now, it’s still a good idea.
The list also calls for reforming airline fees, including a possibly redundant requirement that airlines seat a minor child next to a parent or caregiver at no additional charge. I say redundant because, as you have probably seen, United just announced, “Yeah, we can do that,” and the other lines will almost surely fall into line. Still, what United giveth, United can taketh back, and a legal requirement couldn’t hurt.
Of indirect importance to consumers, the list suggests ending the tax exemption on airline ancillary fees—now a major part of revenues. Additional tax revenues would help maintain critical infrastructure.
And of long-term importance, Congress needs to redress the unanticipated shield for airlines that courts have interpreted as part of deregulation. That would mean giving consumers the right of private legal action and state attorneys general the authority to enforce their states’ consumer protection laws.
Don’t overlook airports. The list calls for Congress to remove some of the roadblocks that hinder and delay new airport construction and require consumer representation on airport governing bodies.
Some items on the list are less clear:
– Mandating minimum seat size should be an important safety consideration. But as I’ve noted before, seats in the 737 and A320 planes that dominate today’s fleets are already as wide as possible, so the only way to make seats wider is to take seats out—a road to higher fares than nobody wants to travel.
– Specifying minimum basic service standards—a great objective—but agreement on what should be included is lacking. Ditto full fare display clarity.
These are worthy objectives, but implementation could pose real problems. Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Last, but not least, is a requirement that airlines notify frequent flyers of mileage devaluations at least 60 days in advance. Over the years, the Department of Transportation has largely ignored frequent flyer abuses, but frequent flyer issues have become so important that “benign neglect” is no longer appropriate.
Although this list sounds long enough, it leaves out some key issues. Chief among them is reform of the future credit and vouchers airlines issue in lieu of cash when they can. Reforms should include no expiration dates and mandatory cash conversion after a set time. There’s still plenty left to get done. Let’s hope some of it actually gets done.