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Airline passengers get a chance to be heard on proposed regulations

By Christopher Elliott
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 11, 2010;

If you've ever complained about air travel -- and who hasn't? -- then here's your best chance in a generation to do something about it.

Tell the government what you think of its proposed new passenger rights rules. You can do it right now, thanks to a new project called Regulation Room (http://www.regulationroom.org).

There's a lot to comment about. The rules cover everything from tarmac delays to peanuts. If adopted, they could change the way Americans fly more than any single regulation since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.

Administrative rulemaking, for those of you who snoozed through your civics class, is the process by which agencies adopt regulations that have the force of law. In this case, it's the Department of Transportation making the rules. The agency is at a critical step during which the traveling public vets these important regulations.

It should come as no surprise that commenting on rules has always required more than a little insider knowledge of government. Few people knew about them, and even fewer took the time to offer feedback.

"Many individuals and groups with a substantial interest in a new regulation aren't aware of the process, or don't know how to exercise their rights meaningfully," said Cynthia Farina, a law professor and principal investigator at Cornell University's e-Rulemaking Initiative, which is hosting Regulationroom.org.

Making it easier to have a voice in notice-and-comment rulemaking is a focus of the Obama administration's open-government directive. Its goal is to take a process that's often hidden from the general public and use such technologies as social networking sites, blogs and discussion forums to remove barriers to participation.

Regulation Room, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and Google, pushes away the hurdles for people who want to participate in government. It includes a plainly worded summary of the problem and the proposed solution, as well as an opportunity to comment.

That's sure to frustrate the airline industry, which has stuffed the ballot boxes on previous rulemaking with scripted pro-industry, anti-regulation comments from employees and supporters.

This time, it won't be so easy.

The proposed passenger-rights rules have something for everyone, and everyone is sounding off. The peanut rule is without question the most controversial one, drawing more than 400 comments so far and prompting the Transportation Department to issue a rare clarification about funding restrictions. The government is considering adding peanuts to the no-fly list, banning peanut products from flights where a passenger has an allergy or offering a peanut-free zone on certain flights.

I don't have the room to dissect each rule, but I wanted to offer a few highlights.

The government wants to require airlines to include all mandatory fees in the advertised price of its tickets, as I reported in a previous column. It wants more airlines to adopt contingency plans for lengthy delays, to report more data on delays, and to promptly notify customers of flight delays. It wants carriers to set minimum customer service standards, to increase compensation for passengers denied boarding and to stop air carriers from raising their fares after a ticket purchase is made. It also wants to make it easier for passengers to sue airlines.

Quite a list, isn't it?

After the comment period ends, the Transportation Department will summarize the public comments, and the transportation secretary will make a decision on the final rule before sending it along to the Office of Management and Budget for review. The rules could go into effect in early 2011.

Cornell's Farina said the airline rules struck a chord with her project, which decided to use them as one of its test cases. "They seemed like good candidates for advancing our knowledge about Web-assisted public participation in complex policymaking," she said.

She's right. This is policymaking as complex as I've ever seen in travel. And the more air travelers who weigh in on these important issues, the better our chances of having rules that serve the flying public, instead of tepid compromises manufactured inside a Beltway bubble.

Regulationroom.org could tip the scales in favor of travelers, giving them a voice in the most important rulemaking for airline passengers in decades.

You have until Aug. 9 to speak up.

Elliott is National Geographic Travel magazine's reader advocate. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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