Do travelers need new federal protections?

It’s not your imagination. Congress seems to be paying closer attention to travelers’ welfare.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the International Travelers Bill of Rights, proposed bipartisan legislation that would require online travel agencies to disclose information about the potential health and safety risks of overseas vacation destinations marketed on their sites. A week earlier, I covered the aggressive new tarmac-delay laws included in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.

And now, just in time for the busy travel holiday season, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has introduced a bill that would require airlines to allow passengers one checked and one carry-on bag “for free.”

The Airline Passenger BASICS Act would force air carriers to let passengers check one bag within weight limits at no extra charge and would guarantee certain minimum standards for passengers, such as access to free drinking water and bathroom facilities as well as the right to carry on bags and personal items for no fee.

“When an airline advertises a flight, that is how much it should cost, plain and simple,” Landrieu said in a prepared statement. “Passengers should not be charged additional fees for checked or carry-on baggage, drinkable water or other reasonable requests. Air travel can be a stressful experience for many reasons, but unfair fees for basic amenities should not be one of them.”

Have our elected representatives decided that travelers, and particularly airline passengers, need special protections?

Before I get to the answer, I should disclose my bias: As a consumer advocate, I of course think that all travelers are entitled to a certain level of protection. As I’ve noted in the past, I’m deeply conflicted about the latest crop of consumer protection laws, flawed as they are. A little voice in my head says that a bad law is better than no law, and that voice won’t go away. But let’s take a closer look at the Landrieu bill.

If the fact that the government would tell a business to give something away for free doesn’t set off a few alarms, a little basic math should. The airline industry collected $3.9 billion in checked baggage fees in 2008 and 2009, according to Landrieu. The Transportation Department reports the figure as $1.6 billion for the first half of 2011.

It’s difficult to say what percentage of those fees came from the first checked bag, but it’s far easier to conclude that without these fees, the airline industry — with the possible exceptions of JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines — would be in serious trouble.

North American airlines are struggling this year, according to the International Air Transport Association, a trade group. It predicts that rising fuel prices and the pressure of operating an older and less fuel-efficient fleet will lower profits to just $1.2 billion for the year, down from $4.1 billion in 2010.

“Without the bag fees,” says Michael Miller, a vice president at the American Aviation Institute, “most airlines would be in bankruptcy.”

Airlines for America, which represents most of the major U.S. carriers, says consumers will also lose if Landrieu’s bill becomes law. “Government regulation of pricing is a 30-year step backward to when customers paid more and had fewer choices,” says Steve Lott, a spokesman for the group. “Consumers have been the big winners from airline deregulation.”

Although Lott dismisses the bill as a holiday stunt, the frustration that led to its introduction is without a doubt genuine. You don’t have to be one of Landrieu’s constituents to be frustrated by luggage fees, but it helps. Delta Air Lines, which has a strong presence in Louisiana, is also one of the most aggressive about charging baggage fees. It collected $424 million in fees in the first half or 2011, according to the government — $130 million more than the No. 2 airline, American.

I checked with the senator’s office about the bill, and although a representative declined to address the little revenue problem that the proposed law might create, she said Landrieu expects “strong support” from the public and other members of Congress.

In other words, it’s no holiday stunt.

But it isn’t the baggage fees per se that have upset passengers. It’s the poor or non-disclosure of these and other surcharges in the past that has often left air travelers standing at the ticket counter, surprised at having to pay more for their trip. In one remarkable case, a San Francisco passenger named Teri Weissinger spent eight days at the airport because she didn’t know about, and couldn’t afford, the luggage fees for her flight.

Federal regulators are working to fix that. A new rule already in effect forces airlines to disclose optional fees prominently online, so anyone complaining about them probably isn’t looking at their computer screen carefully. Just in case, though, starting Jan. 24, a new regulation will require all taxes and fees to be included in advertised fares and force airlines to disclose baggage fees when passengers book a flight; this will probably address most of the baggage fee concerns without also bankrupting the entire domestic airline industry.

The same is true for the tarmac-delay provisions in the FAA bill. Brand-new regulations have already practically eliminated the problem of lengthy ground delays. A new law is probably unnecessary.

So what is needed? I’m reminded of my interview with Nancy Midlock, whose young son died in a tragic accident at an all-inclusive hotel in Mexico in 2003, and whose efforts led to the introduction of the International Travelers Bill of Rights. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child the way she did, and I certainly can’t blame her for trying to create a law that might prevent another senseless death.

Midlock created a Web site that has received virtually no attention in the debate about the bill, which is too bad. I think it achieves more than any law could: warning travelers to Mexico about the health risks they might face there.

My point is, informed travelers don’t get scammed by airlines. Their children are far less likely to get sucked into an underwater drainage pipe at a Mexican resort. And in a world where airlines, airports and passengers have access to good information, no one needs to be stranded on the tarmac. Ever.

You and I may not be able to stop the questionable consumer laws our representatives are considering. But we don’t have to exhibit the questionable consumer behavior that gives some of these bills their momentum.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend