The Navigator: Should tarmac-delay rules become law?

Luci Gutierrez - Consumer Lagislation Tarmac Delays

As someone who has spent a career listening to travelers complain, I know what you don’t like when you’re on vacation.

You hate being ripped off by airlines, car rental companies and hotels. Silly rules frustrate you, too. So does bad customer service.

But what you don’t tell me is often just as important.

For example, even after a series of high-profile tarmac delays in 2008, in which planeloads of passengers spent hours trapped on aircraft without water or food, few air travelers were screaming for laws that would force flight crews to return to the gate. Sure, there were one or two loud voices calling for legislation, but mostly passengers responded to the problem with a collective shrug.

Still, government regulators heeded the calls and enacted measures to punish airlines for holding planes for more than three hours. The rule has all but eliminated tarmac delays, a problem that affected only a fraction of flights to begin with.

So I was more than a little surprised when I heard that a coalition of consumer organizations was pushing for additional legislation to address the issue. The groups, which include Consumers Union, Public Citizen and the Consumer Federation of America, support writing the regulations into the current Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, with some modifications.

“The contributions to the public good provided by the [Department of Transportation] rulemakings are of such significance that they must be codified into public law,” the groups write in a letter to several key legislators. The lengthy letter asks lawmakers to adopt the three-hour rule as a law, to tighten tarmac-delay definitions, to require airlines to disclose a full fare when quoting a price, and to force airlines to display DOT consumer hotline information on all tickets, printed and electronic.

It’s not that I’m against any of these things, per se. It’s just that as someone who spends a lot of time talking to travelers, I’m not sure whether they’re asking for any of this.

Take the hotline, which is part of both the House and the Senate versions of the reauthorization bill. It would require the secretary of transportation to establish a consumer complaints telephone number for air passengers to call.

A phone number in 2011? Seriously? In an age of e-mail and social networking, the idea of DOT operators answering phone calls from distraught passengers seems kind of old school. What’s more, it seems likely that the agency would have to hire more workers to staff the call center, and since the law doesn’t include any new money for it, it’s unclear how the center would be funded.

Or take tarmac delays. In April 2010, regulators adopted a rule prohibiting U.S. airlines from keeping their aircraft on the tarmac for more than three hours without allowing passengers to deplane. There have been no tarmac delays exceeding three hours in four of the past six months, according to the DOT. And no one — not one of my readers — has been demanding a new law to address the issue.

Airlines don’t want any new legislation, either. “Airlines proactively take steps — such as canceling flights in advance of storms — to minimize inconvenience and extensive delays and ultimately get customers where they are going safely and as quickly as possible,” says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry trade association.

Additional tarmac-delay laws could hurt air travelers, research suggests. The American Aviation Institute, a Washington think tank, combed through data and concluded that the three-hour rule, by prompting airlines to preemptively cancel flights, affected half a million air travelers and cost them $3 billion in lost productivity last year. Michael Miller, the institute’s vice president, called the proposed new rules “overzealous and overly vague.”

“The actions by consumer groups will add cost to everyone’s ticket,” he told me. “Adding new regulations to an overregulated industry will only add more cost. More cost equals higher ticket prices.”

I asked federal regulators what would happen if new consumer protection laws were passed with the FAA bill. A spokesman said that it would trigger another rulemaking process to reconcile existing regulations with the law and that this process could take many months, if not years, and might interfere with other regulations already in the works.

In other words, it could be a mess.

This is one of those rare times when I’m siding with the airline industry. Not because passing laws that supersede regulations is a bad idea. (Actually, it might be nice to get a full price on an airline ticket, but I’m content to wait until the DOT addresses that in an upcoming ruling, as promised.)

No, it’s because I haven’t heard any readers ask for these additional steps. Not a one.

I think that passengers would be best served by the passage of a slimmed-down FAA bill that actually funds the FAA, and by letting regulators do what they do best.

It’s what air travelers want.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate.

 
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