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'Airline Passenger Bill of Rights 2.0': A good start

Ed Perkins

Ed Perkins on Travel

5:30 AM EST, December 24, 2013

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Flyersrights.org, a leading consumerist organization for airline passengers, published a proposed updated "bill of rights" that it is urging upon the Department of Transportation and Congress. Although some of its 30 points are toothless -- as are any "rights" that lack recourse -- the new proposal includes some significant proposals with real teeth that would, if adopted, have a big impact on the industry and its customers (list edited for space):

1. Airfare should mean the price including all taxes and fees, and it should cover a seat at least 18 inches in width with legroom, one carry-on piece of baggage, water, adequate nutrition on flights lasting more than two hours, plus toilet facilities. A companion point calls for setting minimum seat standards.

Some of this is already in practice and subject to regulation. The seat space requirements would be substantial, if adopted, but they probably won't be adopted. Why? The Boeing 737s that provide so much of the domestic capacity aren't wide enough to accommodate 18-inch seats (as commonly defined), and the only way airlines could accommodate wider seats in those ubiquitous planes would be to switch to five-across, which isn't going to happen. As to legroom, the airlines say they already provide "adequate" legroom. And if you believe that...

2. Fees not included in airfare shall not be exorbitant, defined as in excess of 200 percent over the cost to the airline of the service, benefit or feature.

This proposal targets two grossly overpriced fees: baggage check and -- especially -- ticket change. According to industry insiders, the true cost of a ticket change is less than $50, so fees of $200 (domestic) and $300 (international) are clearly excessive. The current DOT position is that deregulation legislation precludes it from regulating domestic fees, and that although DOT is legally empowered to hold international fees to reasonable levels, it has formally declined to do so. The fee proposal is, therefore, a direct challenge to current DOT policy.

3. The Airline Deregulation Act's pre-emption clause exempts airlines from state and local regulation of fares and routes but it shouldn't exempt them from responsibility for other things they do, or fail to do, which violate state laws, including fraud, deceit, intentional inflictions of emotional distress, negligence, breach of contract, or consumer, civil rights and health and safety regulations not in conflict with federal regulations or laws.

This is a biggie! Opening airlines to state consumer protection laws that don't conflict with federal standards would help redress a lot of consumer abuses. This proposal will likely generate heavy pushback from DOT and airlines.

4. Force majeure exemptions should not allow airlines to refuse assistance to travelers delayed or canceled when the airlines cause the problems.

Amen. Airlines shouldn't be able to use force majeure (Acts of God) contract exceptions as an excuse for failure to perform.

5. Reinstate the reciprocity rule (formerly Rule 240) allowing passengers on canceled or excessively delayed flights to use their tickets on another airline with available seating flying to the same or nearby destination.

Another biggie. A few airlines still do this, but only at their sole discretion, and some limit re-accommodation to their own flights.

The others. Most of the other 30 points, although with less impact on consumers, are also valid. My main criticism is that the proposals covering frequent flyer matters don't go far enough. In my view, the real needs are (1) to require that frequent flyer miles/points belong to travelers, not to airlines, and (2) to require that airlines offer a reasonable number of seats at even their lowest award levels.

Flyersrights was scheduled to present proposals to the DOT last week. You can bet many will receive an extremely hostile reception from airlines -- especially those that would require actual improvements in basic service levels or the legal and contractual framework governing air travel. Airlines and DOT will probably accept some proposals that require additional disclosure, but you won't see any requirements that would actually improve the product without a stiff fight. For more detail, download the full list at strandedpassengers.blogspot.com/.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

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