Will a New Airline Consumer Panel Have Any Clout?

A new consumer protection committee that will advise the secretary of Transportation may give hope to fliers frustrated by airline customer service.

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The four-seat committee — established by a law passed in February that re-authorized the Federal Aviation Administration — will evaluate existing programs to protect consumers and recommend improvements.

The law directs Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to report the committee's recommendations to Congress by February. He's to explain how each recommendation was implemented or why it wasn't.

The Transportation Department last year received 11,545 complaints from air travelers — 557 more than in 2010. Nearly 1,300 complaints last year were classified as complaints about customer service.

Transportation Department spokesman Bill Mosley says LaHood plans "to move as quickly as possible to appoint committee members and schedule the first meeting."

But because airlines and airports will be represented, there are doubts about how effective the committee will be.

LaHood is required to fill the committee with a person representing airlines, another representing airports, someone with consumer-protection experience from a non-profit public interest group, and a state or local government official with consumer-protection experience.

Paul Hudson, executive director of one non-profit consumer group, the Aviation Consumer Action Project, says it's "unlikely" the group will be effective because at least two seats will be filled by people "whose employers have opposed most, if not all, aviation consumer protection regulation" and "have vested interests adverse to consumer protection."

Hudson says the best person to represent consumers on the committee would be someone airlines are not enamored with — Kate Hanni, executive director of the passengers-rights group FlyersRights.org.

Hudson says FlyersrsRights.org has the broadest support of any non-profit public interest group representing consumers in the travel industry, and Hanni should be appointed "without a doubt."

FlyersRights.org says it has 50,000 members and is staffed by 22 volunteers and two paid employees.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who formed the Aviation Consumer Action Project in 1971, also says Hanni should be appointed.

"When it comes to knowledgeably defending and advancing the rights of airline passengers, the experienced Kate Hanni is the gold standard," Nader says.

Hudson says FlyersRights.org is "principally responsible for the three-hour rule that prohibits airlines from holding passengers on the tarmac for over three hours, which, prior to 2010, was happening to about 250,000 passengers per year."

FlyersRights.org lobbied for a similar rule for international flights, and the Transportation Department established a rule allowing passengers on such flights to disembark after a four-hour tarmac delay.

Hanni created the non-profit passengers-rights organization after she and her family were stranded with thousands of other fliers inside American Airlines planes on airport tarmacs for many hours during storms in December 2006.

Steve Lott, spokesman for Airlines for America, the group that represents major U.S. airlines, wouldn't comment on Hanni or whether the board would be ineffective as Hudson claims because two of the members would be from the industry.

He did say, however, that the airlines are committed to building on their "record operational performance and delivering an even better customer experience through passenger feedback and coordination with other industry stakeholders."

Decision on Leader is Crucial

LaHood also must name one of the four members to lead the committee.

Hudson, a member of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee, says that if an airline or airport representative is named chairperson, it "would immediately discredit" the committee.

"Given the structure of this committee, the only reasonable choices for the chairperson would be the airline passenger advocate or the state or local consumer protection official," Hudson says.

"However," he says, "since aviation regulation is nearly entirely federal, I am not aware of any state or local government official who has played a significant role or has expertise in aviation consumer protection."

Jena Longo, an aide for the Senate Commerce Committee, which supported establishing the advisory committee, says committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., would fully support appointing a consumer advocate to chair the committee.

Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says membership on the advisory committee is left to LaHood's discretion and he will decide what qualifies as a proper non-profit group. The House committee opposes none of them.

Hanni says her group originated the idea for the committee and urges the quick appointment of members.