Road Warrior

Airline Passenger Advocates Say Some Proposals Ignored

Bart Jansen, USA Today
Dave and Les Jabobs | Blend Images | Getty Images

Some consumer advocates complain that a new advisory panel for the Transportation Department ignored important proposals to protect airline passengers from abuse in its first year of work. (Read more: Flier Advocacy Groups to Testify About Passenger Rights)

"The recommendations that our group and others made weren't even rejected; they were just ignored," says Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project.

Hudson argues that the panel — the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection, which was set up to recommend to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood new consumer rules — failed to consider issues such as:

• Requiring airlines to compensate passengers if their flights are canceled or drastically delayed, as the European Union requires. Airlines departing from an EU country must pay passengers up to about $780 to cover meals and hotels if their flights are canceled or delayed at least three hours, unless "extraordinary circumstances" such as extreme weather prompt the delays. (Read more: Bumped Off a Flight? Know Your Travel Rights)

The EU regulation applies to all airlines, including U.S. carriers, that take off from one its nation's airports and to European carriers that fly across the Atlantic from the USA. U.S. airlines aren't required to pay for flights that originate on this side of the ocean.

• Providing passengers with greater compensation for about 40,000 bags that Hudson says the airlines lose and aren't reclaimed each year. Those bags are sold at auction, and Hudson says money from the sales should be used to otherwise help compensate passengers.

Passengers now can get up to $3,300 if their bags are lost on a domestic flight under new regulations adopted last year. The airlines may require passengers provide proof for claimed losses, however. (Read more: Good Airline News: Losing Fewer Bags)

• Establishing a system of arbitration between passengers and airlines over grievances and claims. Right now, the hurdles are high for passengers to successfully sue the airlines.

But one consumer member of the transportation advisory committee, Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, dismissed the complaints, saying "everybody huffs and puffs."

What the committee did recommend to LaHood was "really quite important," Leocha says.

In its report to LaHood in October, the committee recommended that airlines make their contracts of carriage, the long-worded contracts that passengers essentially sign onto when they buy tickets, more understandable.

It also urged the Transportation Department to give more detailed responses to travelers who complain about airlines. And it suggested airports create relief areas for the service animals of the disabled.

The most hotly contested issue is whether airlines should be forced to include bag fees and seat assignments in the price when tickets are sold through online travel agents so consumers can compare them. Airlines are expected to oppose the rule if it forces them to provide competitive information to comparison sites, which then charge consumers for it.

"We think the reasoning is flawed for what it will produce," says Nicholas Calio, president of the industry group Airlines for America. "The more cost you load onto consumers, the less they are going to fly."

The Transportation Department already requires airlines to disclose potential fees on their own websites, and ticket agents must refer passengers to up-to-date bag-fee information and taxes in any advertised price, says department spokesman Justin Nisly. The pending rule expected in early 2013 could require optional fees be displayed at all points of sale, he says.