You’ve never heard of these people, but they’ve changed the way you fly


Their advocacy results in big, embarrassing airline fines. They’ve helped create federal agencies that make air travel safer. And they’ve brought competition and transparency to the skies.

They are the unsung heroes of the airline industry, fighting to make air travel better for the average passenger. And while the names of these consumer advocates may not be familiar to the average passenger, you might want to thank them the next time your flight goes smoothly.

For example, if you’ve wondered who’s behind all those Transportation Department airline fines, you can thank Ben Edelman, at least in part. He has filed dozens of complaints and has shown air travelers how to negotiate the federal government’s often confusing complaint system.

“There was no Web page describing this process, and correspondingly little ability for any aggrieved consumer to figure out how to file such a complaint,” says Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. You can see Edelman’s guide to navigating the system on his website.

Complaining to the DOT can be far more effective than calling an airline or sounding off on social media. It compels a top airline lawyer to give an official, on-the-record response, followed by a considered evaluation and ruling by the agency. Edelman has papered the department with complaints including an airline failing to honor a price quote and misrepresenting a contract. His queries have resulted in fines, most notably a $100,000 consent order against Air Europa for misrepresenting carrier-imposed surcharges as “taxes” during the online booking process.

Paul Hudson may not be a household name, but you can credit him for persuading the government to federalize aviation security by replacing private security operated by airlines and airports with the Transportation Security Administration. Hudson, who was called to consumer advocacy after Ralph Nader spoke at his law school in 1973, is now the executive director of FlyersRights.org, a nonprofit organization that advocates for air travelers.

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If you haven’t heard of FlyersRights.org, maybe you’ve been the beneficiary of one of the regulations it has spearheaded, such as the Tarmac Delay Rule, which fines airlines for keeping passengers parked on the taxiway for more than three hours. The organization also has its fingerprints on nearly every piece of airline legislation that has come through Washington in the past decade.

Hudson describes his quest as a lonely battle. “Corporations have billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of professional advocates who outnumber and outspend public-interest advocates by well over 1,000 to 1,” he says. (Disclosure: I co-founded an advocacy organization called Travelers United that often works alongside Hudson on airline causes. He’s right; we are vastly outnumbered.)


“It’s a no man’s land,” agrees Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel managers, but often advocates for causes that benefit individual travelers as well.

If you enjoy flying on JetBlue or any of the other airlines that were founded after 1996, you can credit Mitchell for that experience, at least partially. In 1996, after the Valujet crash in the Everglades, the major airlines vowed to never again allow a low-fare carrier to gain a foothold at a major hub airport.

“They launched scorched-earth, predatory competitive strategies against low-fare carriers,” recalls Mitchell. “Start-up airline applications to DOT dried up.”

In 1997, his organization launched a three-year campaign that persuaded the airlines to back off. “This enabled potential airline investors to once again have some confidence that DOT was policing predatory practices and helped lead to funding for JetBlue,” Mitchell says.

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If you can easily find the name, number and email address of a manager of an airline — or any travel company — you can thank Jeremy Cooperstock. He’s the guy behind one of the original airline gripe sites, Untied.com. Over the years, Cooperstock, an associate professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at McGill University in Montreal, has helped tens of thousands of United Airlines passengers.

Most vexing to United is that he published the names and email addresses of some of the airline’s senior management, an act that is not necessarily protected under Canadian law. United sued Cooperstock in 2012 and obtained an injunction from the Quebec Superior Court, barring him from providing passengers with the names or contact information of any United personnel other than those designated by the airline. In a parallel lawsuit brought against Cooperstock in the Federal Court of Canada, United asked the judge to order Cooperstock’s domain, which predates United’s own website, to be transferred to the airline.

“Untied.com continues to receive more complaints than the U.S. Department of Transportation against United Airlines and reports of outrageous mistreatment of United’s passengers,” Cooperstock says. Even if the airline prevails, Cooperstock has already made a significant impact. The Internet is now filled with sites that publish executive contacts, including my own.

This unlikely team of college professors, lawyers and former executives has already helped more air travelers than can be counted.

At a time when deregulatory winds are blowing across the airline industry, their efforts are needed more than ever. They probably won’t be talking heads on cable TV, but you can rest assured that they will be working quietly in the background to ensure that your passenger rights are respected.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • BubbaJoe123

    “Paul Hudson may not be a household name, but you can credit him for persuading the government to federalize aviation security by replacing private security operated by airlines and airports with the Transportation Security Administration.”

    Why exactly should I thank somebody for pushing hysteria that has made airline travel more difficult, more costly, and not the slightest bit more safe?

  • John Baker

    Great … so now I know who to haunt… Paul Hudson

    I haven’t read anything anywhere that says that the TSA outperforms the security it replaced. The only thing it did is made things more expensive and remove accountability for mistakes.

  • Jenny Zopa

    My biggest complaint is that airlines are still free to “refund” a customers unused airfare at any time prior to the date of travel, effectively allowing one side to back out of a legal contract with no input from the other side (buyer of the ticket). This is a huge advantage for the airline because the traveler is now forced to pay last minute airfares, which are almost universally higher than the fare they originally booked.

  • Lindabator

    no – they have to either have a flight cancellation due to specific reasons, or an issue with a credit card

  • Michael__K

    Far be it from me to justify many of the things TSA does. But what would you need to convince you that uniform and higher standards, including paying the screeners more than minimum wage, and checking their backgrounds before hiring them, and having them screen for other weapons such as box cutters, and giving them better equipment for this purpose, outperforms what came before?
    And what accountability for mistakes existed before? Do you mean the no-name fly-by-night (pun intended) third party security contractors which would just go bankrupt if their low-ball winning contract didn’t work out and then reformulate under a new umbrella?

  • Michael__K

    He must have been extraordinarily persuasive, because the bill to federalize aviation security passed Congress unanimously…

    BTW, the bill didn’t collect enough fees from passengers or airlines to cover the costs, so a huge chunk is subsidized by taxpayers who don’t fly…

  • Michael__K

    Why would they need a specific reason? Unless the flight is covered by EU261 (or similar laws in other countries) AND it’s inside 14 days before departure, they can drop the flight for any reason or for no reason.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Well, however much he contributed, is the blame he should bear.

  • BubbaJoe123

    You’d need to convince me that:

    1. Safety has actually been improved by the creation of the TSA, even though there’s no evidence that it has (cockpit door locks are the only actual security improvement, and zero need to have TSA to have done that).
    2. The improvement in safety is worth it given the higher spending on aviation security (money which could be spent elsewhere, like health care) and the costs in time imposed on the traveling public. Even if TSA only costs the average air traveler an extra 10 minutes per flight, that’s the equivalent of killing 150 people a year.

  • BubbaJoe123

    But they have to cancel a flight, which, given the interconnectedness of modern aviation, creates real costs.

  • Michael__K

    If the flight is dropped 7+ days before departure, it does not even count as a cancellation for FAA statistics. And either way, dropping the flight could be the more profitable option, depending on the number of tickets sold and depending on other options for leveraging the plane, crew, and fuel (or not using some of them and reducing expenses).

  • Michael__K

    Why is it all or nothing? We can agree that a lot of effort and money is not wisely and prudently invested, but that doesn’t mean that none of it is.
    Would you really feel equally safe if checked luggage was not screened, and if box cutters were allowed on board, and if the screeners were paid minimum wage, often by sketchy third party companies who don’t perform background checks on their employees?

  • BubbaJoe123

    I would feel entirely safe flying if we returned to 9/10/01 status quo, with the exception of leaving the secured cockpit doors in place, tomorrow.

    The TSA already has $10/hr quality staff – no reason to not pay them that, and save the money.

  • Michael__K

    Even as of 9/10/01 the FAA was pushing for (and the airlines were resisting) screening all checked bags.
    The 9/10/01 status quo featured staff making $5.15/hr (worth $7 today), with (of course) higher turnover and no hiring or training or screening equipment standards. And the security companies, in order to survive after winning their low-ball bids, frequently resorted to providing fewer staff than they were contracted to provide, leading to either long lines (equivalent to killing people according to your logic above) or blatant skimping on their duties.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Even if everything you said above is true, security was entirely adequate (except for the cockpit doors), given the incredibly minimal risk.

    Today, we have security that doesn’t perform any better (given that the TSA fails the vast majority of the time they’re tested), is far more intrusive, and costs dramatically more.

  • Michael__K

    The FAA and the families of those who were killed by remotely detonated suitcases and other devices would beg to differ.
    The failure to stop 9/11 was a failure of imagination and demonstrated our inertia in response to proven threats until those threats produce a shocking body count. There were several incidents around the world involving suicidal hijackers and/or pilots in the few years prior, but we did nothing to adjust our approach accordingly.
    Sure, secure cockpit doors addressed a key vulnerability exploited by the 9/11 hijackers. But a single point of failure is rarely a good idea. And until we have secure cockpit bathrooms, and blast-proof fuselages, securing the cockpit door is not a panacea.

  • John Baker

    Show me a government employee that is ever held accountable for failing. I give you repeated TSA (Red teams) screening failures and the VA.

    The hands on portion of screening doesn’t seem to perform any better than when the security companies were handling it. At least they had some incentive to be nice and perform.

    I will grant you that the intel side has gotten much better. I’m one that defends the TSA for the impossible job they have to do. Defending threats before they happen often means media folks, like Chris, get to take pot shots at them without all the facts.

  • Michael__K

    TSA terminates employees just like private companies do. Show me the private sector employees who are more accountable without being paid more.
    It’s a fact-free political dogma in some circles that private sector work is always superior to public sector work. You bring up the VA, which makes my point actually. Despite all of the well documented faults of VA care, VA patients have repeatedly, across numerous surveys across many years, reported patient satisfaction that is equal to or better than what private care patients report. Even if your only metric is average patient wait times, private care is barely any better on average. But it’s easy to demonize the public sector option (which in the case of health care is actually less costly) if you don’t hold the private sector to the same level of scrutiny.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    The danger of 9/11 was planes used as flying bombs. Secure cockpits prevent that unless the pilots themselves are involved. Anything else will kill those on the plane (maybe), but no one else.

  • Michael__K

    1) Pilots still need to leave the cockpit except for short flights.
    2) Security also needs to worry about other plots/vulnerabilities. For example, aircraft have been brought down, including over populous areas, with bombs.

  • LonnieC

    How did you figure that?

  • LonnieC

    And Medicare costs from 3-5% of the health care dollar, as compared to 15-25% for private health insurers.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Average lifespan is around 42 million minutes. 10 minutes per passenger, times 700 million passengers, is 7 billion minutes. 7 billion divided by 42 million is 190.

  • LonnieC

    Okay. Clever. Got it. Thanks.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Why do pilots need to leave the cockpit? There should be a bathroom and food present, and no need to open the door ever. As for other risks, those must be balanced with the costs of TSA in time, dignity, freedom, and money. To me, TSA is not worth the price.

  • Michael__K

    http://lmgtfy.com/?q=Why+do+pilots+need+to+leave+the+cockpit%3F

    If you’re saying that *some* of the things TSA does aren’t worth the price, then I’d agree, and according to opinion polls, most flyers would agree.

    But the stated premise above was that *all* of the post 9/11 measures introduced by TSA aren’t worth the price, and that’s just plain dead wrong. For example, PanAm103 would not be hard for terrorists to replicate, and other countries wouldn’t even allow our flights into their airspace.

  • RightNow9435

    In the case of Untied.com, in the unlikely event he loses the suit (1) Canadian court, so only applies there, not in the rest of the world (2) he can just change the website to some other name

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I don’t believe that the current TSA screenings would actually stop another PanAm103.

  • Michael__K

    TSA screens checked baggage. So does virtually every other screening agency at airports around the world these days. Worst case, if checked bags are not screened, then PPBM is strictly mandatory. This is all to thwart the PanAm103 vulnerability.
    You believe this is all a waste and you prefer doing nothing?

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