Airline service rules: protection or re-regulation?

More than three decades after airline deregulation, the industry faces a growing list of rules covering the way passengers are handled.

Horror stories about hours-long tarmac delays led to a wave of service regulations - sometimes referred to as a passenger “bill of rights” - since 2010.

Now a four-person panel created by Congress this year is studying a raft of ideas that involve everything from requiring more complete pricing information on travel booking websites to clearer definitions of airline terms such as “mechanical delay.”

The committee members were named by U.S. Transporation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has been widely viewed as an activist DOT leader on consumer issues. But because it was created by Congress, the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection will likely survive even if LaHood leaves the position as a result of the presidential election.

The committee’s creation reflects a question that has lingered ever since airline deregulation in the late 1970s: how closely the government should police airline service.

Advocates of tougher rules believe airline service is still a form of public utility that should meet minimum standards.

“Airline passengers have rights, and they should be able to expect fair and reasonable treatment when booking a trip and when they fly,” LaHood said earlier this year when a round of passenger protections took effect. He called the measures “a continuation of our effort to help air travelers receive the respect they deserve.”

Others say airlines should operate more like other retail industries, where specific service practices are left to companies and consumers vote with their feet.

Airline consultant Darryl Jenkins thinks the trend toward service regulation has gone too far.

“Over the last four years we have seen a DOT that believes if one person complains about anything, that gives DOT both the right and the license to regulate,” he said in a report last week.

A DOT rule that took effect this year required booking websites to show a price including taxes and surcharges, not just the base fare. One idea on the committee’s plate that’s generating heat is to require airlines to give information on ancillary fees to the systems used by travel agents and online travel agencies like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity.

Consumer advocates say that would give passengers a fuller picture when comparing prices, and the government ought to require it.

Airlines say such price comparisons don’t reflect the many differences between airlines’ offerings, from seats with extra legroom to in-flight wi-fi. They also say they already disclose fees on their websites and shouldn’t be required by the government to hand over their proprietary data to the outside systems. Baggage fee charts are often available on online travel agency sites, but on separate pages.

Concern about airline customer service built to an “uprising” over tarmac delays that “brought consumer issues to the forefront” and led to a 2010 federal rule limiting tarmac delays, said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance.

In 2011, the DOT announced more rules, including an expansion of the tarmac delay rule, a requirement to refund checked baggage fees if luggage is permanently lost and increased compensation for passengers involuntarily bumped from flights. A bill signed into law earlier this year enacted different tarmac delay protections and other measures.

Leocha said LaHood — a former Republican Congressman and an Obama appointee — “has been absolutely by far the most consumer-friendly Secretary of Transportation who has ever held that position.”

LaHood, who was recently in Atlanta for an air cargo conference, indicated he will consider staying on if President Obama is re-elected, but added, “if the other fellow wins, I’ll probably be walking out the door, even though I’m a Republican and proud of it.”

Leocha is a member of the advisory committee created by congress. The other three members represent airlines, airports and state or local governments. The committee is set to last through September 2015, and the Transportation Secretary must give an annual report to Congress on the recommendations and the DOT’s responses to them.

The committee met three times since its creation in May and is also looking at improving tracking of airline consumer complaints to the federal government. That could give travelers who file such complaints a tracking number and a response on whether it’s an existing policy issue or whether the complaint will be forwarded onto a particular airline, according to Leocha.

Airlines would then need to respond to the consumer within a certain time frame.

Another idea is a glossary of airline terms to define for travelers what exactly qualifies as a mechanical delay, for example, and why your missing luggage may be called “mishandled” rather than just “lost,” Leocha said.

Carriers, including Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, have resisted many of the moves toward increased regulation of customer service. While deregulation got the government out of the business of controlling routes and prices, airlines say they are still among the most regulated companies.

Separately from the committee’s work, the DOT is considering requiring airlines to submit more information on how much revenue they collect from various fees each quarter, as well as information on the number of bags checked and wheelchairs handled to give travelers a better way to compare how carriers handle baggage and passengers with disabilities.

“Many air travelers who use wheelchairs are reluctant to travel by air because of concern that the return of their wheelchair or scooters will be delayed, or the wheelchair/scooter will be damaged or lost,” the DOT said in a proposal. “However, we do not know the magnitude of the problem.”

Airlines already report a range of statistics - from on-time performance to lost pets - to the DOT, which makes them public in monthly service rankings. Some, including Delta and AirTran, have been fined for missteps in handling of passengers in wheelchairs.

But Delta said in written comments it would cost $20 million to collect and report the additional information and the need for tracking could delay flights.

It said the proposal “would add substantial costs with no tangible benefit.”

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