AIRLINES WANT TO NIX a host of rules that attempt to keep them from mistreating customers. The Transportation Department is considering it.
The DOT has asked airlines to suggest changes or cuts to regulations, part of a broad initiative from President Trump, once an owner of a small airline, to reduce government red tape. It comes as DOT fines against airlines fell by half last year.
The rules matter because DOT is just about the only protection consumers have in U.S. air travel. If the airlines get what they want, the government would weaken the tarmac delay rule, which imposes hefty fines for stranding passengers on planes for long periods, and eliminate a requirement that they show the full price of a ticket when people shop.
Carriers also have asked DOT to scrap the 24-hour grace period for a full refund when buying a ticket—you'd pay a change fee even if you realized right away you booked the wrong date or made a mistake in the passenger name. They want to eliminate a rule that requires them to honor tickets sold for “mistake fares,” and they're asking for freedom to charge fees for wheelchair service.
They also want to reintroduce bias in travel agency search results, so one airline might pay to dominate the first page of available options you see, and drop requirements to show on-time and cancellation data with flights.
In October, DOT asked for suggestions of “existing rules and other agency actions that are good candidates for repeal, replacement, suspension, or modification.” Airlines responded in volume, calling out regulations they consider trivial, costly, outdated, burdensome and unfair. Airlines for America, the industry's lobbying group, filed 222 pages of comments. United Airlines added 50 pages of its own. There's no telling when or if the DOT will put through changes.
Airlines argue DOT has limited authority for consumer protection and has turned too-activist over the years. “DOT has strayed far from the limited scope of the statutory mandate Congress gave it when deregulating the airline industry nearly 40 years ago,” David Berg, senior vice president at Airlines for America, says in one filing to DOT.
Unique in everyday commerce, airlines sometimes do bad things to their customers with expensive consequences. They leave them stranded, lose and damage their belongings, and bump them from flights when they have a ticket. It's a tough business, vulnerable to weather, machines, air-traffic control and complicated scheduling with little cushion for recovery.
Over the years, DOT has imposed new rules in reaction to public outrage over airline fiascos like holding people on planes 10 hours or more in wretched conditions, bumping low-fare customers off planes to seat high-dollar passengers or offering misleading advertisements that not only leave out government taxes and fees but also airline-designated “fuel surcharges.”
The DOT enforces rules on accommodating passengers with disabilities, polices misleading advertisements and tries to make sure that airlines follow rules on things like disclosing code-sharing arrangements, lost baggage liability and compensation when involuntarily bumped from flights.
Consumer groups say DOT under the Trump administration has delayed implementation of three pro-passenger laws approved by Congress in 2016, including a measure forcing airlines to seat families together and another to refund baggage fees when checked bags get delayed. The agency has also signaled to airlines enforcement is changing by inviting suggestions on rules to quash.
“Basically the DOT has stopped working for passengers,” says Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, a group that lobbies in Washington for passengers.
DOT says nothing has changed; it has the same number of staff working on enforcement and conducted more than 100 unannounced airline inspections in August and September alone. The agency employs analysts who look for trends in complaints consumers file about airlines and other travel companies. They sometimes conduct inspections at airports, shop for tickets to see if airlines are following rules and inspect airline records at their headquarters.
Last year, DOT levied $3.2 million in aviation-related fines in 17 enforcement cases, half of the $6.4 million in 31 cases during 2016. Enforcement cases take a long time and often annual results vary. In 2015, for example, there were $2.4 million in fines levied in only 13 cases.
“The department continues to vigorously and fairly enforce our nation's laws and regulations protecting the economic and civil rights of air travel consumers,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.
Benjamin Edelman, a Harvard Business School professor who frequently files formal complaints about airline rules violations, says it's too early to tell if enforcement has gone lax. He filed only one case last year and it's too early to say whether DOT is not pursuing it as aggressively, he says. A few older cases have dragged on, but that's not unusual, Mr. Edelman says.
“I didn't think they were perfect under Obama and I don't think they are perfect now,” he says. “There has always been plenty to criticize.”
Airlines say some of DOT's enforcement actions are absurd or trivial and go beyond the agency's regulatory authority.
In 2016, JetBlue was fined $40,000, half of it waived if it didn't repeat the violation within one year, after it self-reported that it had underpaid 12 passengers who were bumped from a flight. JetBlue issued vouchers to the travelers toward future flights instead of the $1,350 in cash each was owed. When the error was discovered, JetBlue sent a $1,350 check to each passenger and trained employees involved on compliance.
Some regulations under review are clearly out of date. Airlines have to pay out involuntary denied boarding compensation in cash or check; they want the ability to use debit cards or electronic transfers. And airlines are actually begging for more regulations on transporting service and support animals.
They complain current regulations are broad and vague, and travelers are abusing them to transport large pets in cabins and avoid pet fees paid to airlines by declaring pets “emotional support animals.” Delta and United have already tightened their own rules. “All too frequently, animals have jumped on, bitten, or scratched customers and crew,” Delta said in its DOT filing on regulatory change requests.
The Department of Transportation, headed by Elaine Chao (left), will consider sweeping changes that would affect regulations on baggage fees, delay disclosures, free wheelchair service and pets in airplane cabins.
By Scott McCartney