Airline gadfly has Delta in his sights

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Airline gadfly has Delta in his sights

Most travelers who are told they must pay an airline fee for some extra service just sigh, pay up and shrug their shoulders. They might complain to a friend, then forget about it.

Not Donald Pevsner.

Pevsner, a consumer advocate, retired attorney and former Concorde tour operator, has for decades filed petitions with the federal government challenging rules, fees and anything else that strikes him as unjust.

“I like tilting windmills at the people that deserve being tilted at,” he said. “And the airline industry deserves it in spades.”

Now in his sights: Delta Air Lines.

Most recently, the Atlanta-based airline landed squarely on the wrong side of Pevsner’s sharp-tongued criticism when the North Carolina resident booked a Delta flight, then found out Delta had later moved up the departure time by 24 minutes. That didn’t fit into Pevsner’s plans. But switching to a different flight would call for a $150 change fee, according to Delta policy.

In July, he filed a petition for a change in federal airline rules so passengers would be entitled to a full refund of their tickets or a waiver of change fees if their airline attempts to change the schedule after purchase.

The odds are not on his side. Many of Pevsner’s petitions have produced no action. Last year, for example, the DOT dismissed two from Pevsner, including one over Delta’s cancellation of a flight without providing substitute transportation acceptable to him.

Citizen campaigns can have an effect, though. A petition Pevsner filed in 1997 seeking to prohibit reservations agents from falsely claiming they were selling the cheapest fares when cheaper ones could be found online led the DOT to put airlines and travel agents on notice on the issue, even though DOT dismissed the petition because it said existing rules already applied.

In another case, a campaign led by real estate agent-turned-consumer advocate Kate Hanni was followed by new rules limiting tarmac delays — though it took years. Hanni took the approach of advocating for tarmac delay limits and trying to build public support, rather than submitting a formal petition for rulemaking.

“If you’re just one person and send it in, then nothing’s going to happen,” said Hanni, who heads FlyersRights.org. “Individual citizens have a tremendous responsibility to speak up.”

She also said flight schedule changes are the No. 1 complaint on her organization’s hotline.

“There’s no penalty for the airlines to change your schedule, but if you try to change it, there’s a $150 fee,” Hanni said. “It’s completely lopsided.”

In 2011, U.S. airlines collected nearly $2.4 billion in cancellation and change fee revenue, up from nearly $2.3 billion in 2010. Delta collected $767 million from those fees last year, up from $699 million in 2010.

As for Pevsner’s latest complaint about altered flight times, Delta says it has no merit and should be dismissed. “Flight schedules are not guaranteed,” Delta responded.

If Pevsner had booked a fully refundable ticket or if his departure time had been changed by 90 minutes or more, he would have been entitled to a full refund, according to Delta. The airline also said it offered to waive half the $150 change fee out of goodwill, but he rejected the compromise.

“Our contract of carriage provisions are not unfair or deceptive,” Delta’s managing director of government affairs Alexander Van der Bellen wrote.

A petition to the U.S. Department of Transportation is a request to adopt, amend or repeal a regulation. It then may be open to public comment. The U.S. Department of Transportation said it reviews such petitions to see if action is warranted, but it has no timetable for acting on Pevsner’s latest petition.

Pevsner, 68, who calls airline deregulation “a very stupid move,” wrote in his petition that airlines “prefer to mulct their passengers of billions of dollars in ‘change penalties’ as a particularly inequitable and disgraceful profit center.”

His petition has attracted a couple dozen comments in support. But one commenter called for his petition to be stricken, citing “rude” language and adding that Pevsner calls himself an attorney in the filing but has inactive status with the Florida Bar. Pevsner replied that his use of the title has no bearing on the filing, which does not have to be filed by an attorney.

He contends that $250 change fees for international flights violate federal regulations requiring “reasonable prices, classifications, rules and practices related to foreign air transportation,” adding that many flight changes incur little cost to the airline. However, that federal requirement for reasonable prices does not apply to domestic flights.

Delta wrote in its response that according to its contract of carriage, schedules are subject to change without notice, adding that “schedule adjustments are a normal and necessary reality in the airline industry.”

“It would not be feasible to operate an airline if carriers could not make minor adjustments to their schedules after publication without breaching their contact with every passenger that had already bought a ticket on every affected flight,” Delta wrote.

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