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.”

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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.

52 thoughts on “Do travelers need new federal protections?

  1. I don’t think it will cause a “revenue problem” at all.  The carriers will simply price the bag fee into the basic ticket price, which is the way it should have been from the beginning.  I mean, it would be like Wal-Mart charging $10 to use a shopping cart.  That cost is built into everything you buy there.

    On the other hand, the airlines are probably already at work to find a way around this.  I can see them setting weight and/or size limits rediculously small and then hitting us with a fee for overweight/oversized bags.

    1. Well – at most airports they will charge you $3-5 to use what’s essentially a “shopping cart”.  I also remember the old 25 cent cart return fee.  There used to be a cottage industry in people who would scan for abandoned carts to collect the return fee.  Sometimes they’d take carts before the renter was done with them (unload bags first) and they also had competition with cart concession employees who were trying to corral them.

      That wasn’t the case when I’ve been overseas, but that’s a different story.

        1. I mentioned international travel with carts provided for free.  I’ve noticed that outside the US, the carts were typically festooned with advertising, which I suppose helps pay for them.

  2. I would like to see a rule about seat width and pitch. And, what to do when an XL pax doesn’t fit in said seat. I got the “pleasure” of sitting next to a fleshy flier earlier this week. 

    This woman must’ve been 300 lbs and she took up part of my seat. Of course the flight was full and the FAs were sympathetic, but the woman made no effort to contain her body in her seat. She even had the gall to ask if I’d give her the aisle. I told her no, I booked the aisle and that I expected the armrest to remain down. She gave me a dirty look, but whatever.

    CO gave me some miles after I sent an email. Miles are great, but they won’t solve the problem in the future!

  3. In truth many of the problems we face as a society (including while traveling) are caused because many of us choose to be uninformed about certain topics. Until that aspect changes we’ll always have new legislation aimed at protecting those people. Unfortunately you cannot force someone to be informed about any specific topic.

  4. It’s so weird that Sen. Landrieu would introduce this bill. In New Orleans, two major carriers (Southwest and jetBlue) already offer free bags. Further, they’ve differentiated themselves from the pack of thieves we call “major airlines” as a result. 
    Futher, Delta, United/Continental, Alaska and others have simple programs where travelers can skirt the fee. Sometimes it’s a credit card. Other times it’s via the elite-level frequent flyer plans. 
    End result=NON-ISSUE. The market is taking care of it.
    MORE PRESSING: the f-ing TSA. They are beyond ridiculous. Cut the funding of the agency that offers the impossible choice at the security check: irradiate-or-violate. #OccupyTSA

    1. Agree.  When we have government taking care of us we get the TSA.  Having a rule about pricing up front seems ok but the unintended consequences of a Law will have us wishing we didn’t have it.

    2. I’m all for fixing the issues with the TSA, but hell no to following the “occupy” model to do it.

      I seriously doubt sitting around banging drums and smoking weed will solve the problem of TSA abuse.

  5. I am all for rules that require a consumer is informed the real and full cost s/he would have to pay for service before a purchase. That said, should an airline not provide free baggage, boarding pass printing, water, or other items or services which a passenger could reasonably need or have been historically receiving, then the charges for such service and items should be displayed to the customer before s/he purchases a ticket. There is a huge difference between requiring  transparency and a slippery slide back to airline re-regulation. But I believe the government except for genuine safety reasons should butt out of telling airlines how they need to run their business, since the government itself is too undisciplined to run its own. [Sen. Landrieu- remember hurricane Katrina and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster the Gulf?]

    I also find the fines that airlines are required to pay (i.e. tarmac delay) very dis-ingeniousness because they do not go to the victims . The government should change that to mandatory compensation to passengers. They are the ones who suffered, not the government.

    The concept of forcing airlines to provide reasonable care for passenger is excellent. IMO charging for baggage is a pricing issue. Losing, breaking, pilfering, and delaying my checked luggage is a care issue. By forcing an airline to pay compensation to passengers if they do not deliver their part of the bargain, then the deal is more even handed and just.

  6. First, all legislation has to start somewhere.  The final bill, if passed and signed, always looks somewhat different.  At least there is a start.
    Second, it is not always easy to be “informed.”  Yes, we assume some level of intelligence, such as the ability to read and write and understand to an 8th Grade vocabularly.  But many people have never flown.  Many do not understand their rights, if any. 

    We should create an intuitive airline regulation system with the least amount of rules to enable the airlines to be flexible and change oriented.  Advertised pricing is one.  Access to basic free services such as water, reasonable-weight and size carry-on bag, and rest rooms are another.   Advertising something for $69 and having the average traveler pay twice that shows something is very wrong.  (Reservation charge, carry-on charge, seat charge, etc.)

    1. But regulation means higher fares, and the US consumer has voted with his pocket for CHEAP for so long, he won’t go for it.  You can’t expect a company to fly you for cheap, AND add all the additional services as well. 

      1. Better to have a TRUE advertised price than a +++++ price (upcharges, add-on’s, extras, fees and surcharges), including a reservation fee on some airlines.  Also, aren’t fresh water, rest rooms and one carry-on basic services, not “additional?” 

        To think prices will go up because you make an on-line reservation without a fee is absurd.

        1. But your suggestion they go back to free baggage would mean higher ticket prices — while I say charge me upfront, and include the bags, the seat, the booking fees, the meal…the US public has wanted to fly for as near to free as they can get, and won’t want the prices to actually reflect the cost of operating that flight.  (And just for the record, we see cruise line and hotel prices lower than they actually should be, because EVERYONE feels entitled to travel 1st class for cargo).  And it does hurt those of us who do realize the cost reflects the SERVICE.

          1. Who suggested free baggage?  My suggestion above is “reasonable weight and size carry-on bag.”  This is a basic service for almost all travelers. 

  7. I have no idea if this is off-base, but could some of the revenue being lost by airlines be a result of people not flying because of the TSA? I, for one, would be inclined to fly more if I didn’t have to worry about the scenario I face each time: when I get to the front of the line will I need to choose between irradiation or groping, or both?

    1. That’s a clear example of a government that can’t fix its own problems. So, how can it fix other people’s problems? A lot of  people bad mouth Spirit Airlines on how it nickle and dimes travelers yet that airline is alive and well. Why? because people really vote with their pocketbooks. If you don’t like the service of an airline don’t fly it. But people must ALWAYS get what they paid for.

  8. A long time and frequent traveler who works in the broader hospitality industry, I know all these potential laws are important. The irony is that if the jobs bill and tax bills with breaks for middle class and lower income people aren’t passed, this won’t matter as much: there will be no money for travel.

    Of course the big bucks the airlines will spend lobbying against this will help the economy a bit, eh?

  9. Who is going to fine the International call centers staffed by foreigners 12 time zones away in India who can’t even spell passengers’ names right, give correct information about fares and ticketing – THIS is what the airlines should be fined for — using third party vendors who are able to dispense wrong information or withold information with no ramifications.   I’m the person on the front line who has to over-apologize and FIX the horrendous errors on a daily basis while the passenger is screaming at me to honor a non-applicable fare or blatently wrong information.      

    1. Maybe Sen. Landrieu should change her bill to protect American jobs by requiring US carriers  to have only call centers in the USA. I’d vote for that. If I want to travel to India then I will call an Indian Travel Center. Otherwise let’s keep it local.

      1. A little known trick is to choose the option to speak to someone in Spanish. All large corporations (like airlines, banks, etc) have a dedicated Spanish “queue” with most/all of the same departments as the English speaking lines. Just press whatever number for Spanish from the main menu and then hit “0” a few times. This should get you to the main customer service department. They will answer in Spanish, just start talking in English, but don’t tell them you did it on purpose (especially to get someone in the US) – this will irritate them. When the regular, English lines get really long hold times, they will start sending calls to the Spanish lines, so the rep won’t think anything of it unless you ask. And once you start in the Spanish speaking queue, you will almost always stay there due to the way the internal transfer systems work. All of the Spanish speakers speak fluent English and all are located in the US.

        1. Rebecca, it’s really not so much where the call center people are from but it’s that the airlines do not train their foreign outsourced workers as much as they do their own. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they pay low wages in India or wherever. If they only select and train those people better and empower them to solve problems without needing a supervisor all the time then I could not care less what accent they have.

          1. I want only English speaking agents answering the agency desks and I want them do know more than me.  AA and US are bringing their call centers back to the US.  I hope the other follow!

          2. I agree with you 100%!  Because if an egent is calling, then the problem isn’t a typical one most passengers would have questions about — so THESE lines should always have the best employees – they deal with bigger or more complex problems on the whole.

          3. To be fair to them, it isn’t really their fault, but the companies that employ them. In foreign call centers, they are required to stick to a very specific “script,” and if they deviate from the few things they are permitted to say/do, they are fired.

          4. Yes, it is the airline’s fault.  The agency desk is suppose to be staffed with their best agents and that is a freaking joke when you get an off shore call center.

  10. Government regulations become necessary when an industry cannot be trusted to regulate themselves.

    And as we see time and again in pretty much every industry imaginable, eventually such regulations become necessary because profit towers above all else.

    So, what does it tell you about the state of the airline industry in the US if most of the airlines need such fees to survive? That the industry is badly broken and in need of repair. In need of an overhaul.

    What it isn’t in need of is more shake downs of customers to find more hidden nickles and dimes.

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

    Really?  So what happened with AA????

    1. They needed the ability to renegotiate their union contracts–which could only be done with bankruptcy.  Just like all the other legacy carriers.

  12. I predict the International Traveler’s Bill of Rights will result in all destinations stating they have no medical services.  

  13. I’m not sure what questionable behavior you are talking about on the part of consumers.  I’m pretty sure that if airlines know what to charge you at the gate it could be listed clearly online; the extra revenue they are generating from bag fees comes from obfuscating the fare schedule in a way that means that finding the cheapest fare becomes not a purchasing decision but a full blown research project.

  14. There is a fine line here between pushing for more disclosure on the true price of services (which I fully support – mandatory taxes and fees should absolutely be included in the display price, and I have been arguing for some time for a check box-type menu when purchasing plane tickets so you can easily calculate the full cost), and demanding the inclusion of extras in the price because it is a supposed “right”, and these regulations unfortunately seem to tilt towards the latter.  You know what the ultimate problem is in all of this?  Those pushing these types of regulations want to have their cake and eat it, too.  So you want a free checked bag, reliable information on facilities in foreign countries, and you only want to talk to U.S.-based call center representatives, which sounds all fine and dandy.  But you know what will happen?  The airlines will raise their fares by $25 each way, and the online agencies, etc. will raise their hotel rates by $10 a night to recoup the cost of their new regulations.  These same people demanding these regulations, egged on by the “Occupy Wall Street” crowd and Democrats in Congress, will inevitably start howling in protest about the “unconscionable price gouging” by evil Corporate America.  Equally inevitably, we’ll start hearing about how the government needs to subsidize “the rights of Americans to travel at a fair price”, and how the tab needs to be picked up by “fat cat millionaires and billionaires”. 

    Socialism sounds great when you’re talking about other peoples’ money.  So I have a challenge to anyone who supports these types of regulations:  are you willing to step up and pay $75 more for your next weekend getaway to get your checked bag and American call center agent?  Because quite frankly, if you’re going to answer “no”, I really don’t want to hear any more whining about your checked bag fee or the fact you couldn’t understand the call center agent you talked to.

    1. MeanMosh, I don’t know why Southwest can do it. My family can get 2 bags free and pay essentially the same or lower fares from NYC to most US cities we go to. When we need to change our dates, we call Southwest and always get what sounds like a call center agent in the USA (I assume a Southwest employee). They don’t charge a penalty fee.

      I checked the wage rates of SWA and they are one of the best in the industry. So if Southwest can offer 2 bags free, low fares, no change penalty and US bases call centers, why can’t others?

        1. Their pilots are with SWAPA , and their attendants with TWU 556, correct? And they are paid in the upper scale of the industry. So this whole whole outsourcing justification by other airlines is plain BS.

  15. Whether the latest legislative proposal will make life as an air traveler better seems debatable.  Certainly full disclosure, up-front, of what you will pay to fly, is important.  But so is what you pay for what you want (and what you get).

    Service providers (of any kind, not just the airlines) face a dilemma:  Offer all of your related services (with a flight, that would include a seat on the plane, a place to stow your bags, food and beverages, employees to assist you at the ticket counter and on-board) for a flat one-size-fits-all fee, or “unbundle” the services so each customer only buys what they want. 

    So if I am not going to check a bag (and, therefore, don’t need airline/airport employees to move it through the bowels of the airport and onto the plane), or don’t want a meal served to me during the flight, why not remove the cost of those items from what the airline would have charged me for “fully-bundled” travel services, and let me pay less for the trip?

    Flying “ala carte” obviously appeals to many airline passengers.  Others would prefer an all-inclusive, one-price fare that could easily be compared with that from another airline flying between the same destinations.

    At the present time, airlines often add on charges for checking (or carrying on) bags, the more desirable seats (like those in exit rows) in coach, and food and beverages.  Suppose Congress passed a law that required airlines to offer all passengers a fare that included all services, but allowed them to opt-out of the ones they didn’t want in order to get a discount and not pay for those services that they didn’t want? 

    Here’s an example.  The all-inclusive fare from San Francisco to New York is $350 (includes two checked bags up to 30 lbs in weight each, ability to choose any seat in coach at the time of booking, free water, coffee, tea and soft drinks, and a hot meal served at your seat).  Check the following boxes to reduce your fare by the amount shown:  1) No checked luggage – $50 off: 2) one checked bag only – $25 off; 3) No beverage service (except water provided at no charge) – $10 off; 4) No meal service – $15 off.

    Would this approach be a viable way to:  1) Make it simple to compare airfare quotes from different carriers flying the same route; 2) allow passengers who wanted full-service (particularly on-board meal service) to get it without having to calculate the total cost of the flight; 3) let passengers who are happy with the current ala carte system to continue tol pick and choose what to pay for on each flight taken; 4) allow airlines to keep all passengers happy on-board, and keep the board of directors and shareholders happy by remaining profitable?

    1. Or here is a better deal that will save time.  Just include it all and be done with it.  The airlines have dropped things to cater to the lowest budget shopper and everything has gone down hill ever since.  The planes are dirty, even pieced together with duct tape. Place everything back into the fare and take care of passengers and planes the right way! 

      1. People cannot afford any more fare increases. The airlines know that. 99.99% of calls to our office starts with “What is the cheapest fare from X to Y”? People have the option to fly Southwest with 2 bags, and JetBlue with 1 bag free. What’s the point of forcing the others to be nice?

        1. Why would a customer ask for anything other than the lowest available (cheapest) fare?   If you get exactly the same seat, service and fees whether you pay $99 or $999, why would any customer ask for a higher fare?  

          The only time I would pay a higher fare just to get from X to Y is if the higher fare gave me either a roomier seat in coach or an upgrade to Business/First and seemed reasonable at the time.  The amount I am willing to pay for any of those options mainly depends on how long the flight is.  I paid $349 to upgrade to 1st on Hawaiian from HNL to LAX last week just because coach was full of high school soccer kids.  Since I only paid $99 for the coach seat, the upgrade price was reasonable.  I would NOT have been willing to pay that much to upgrade a flight from LAX to DEN simply because it doesn’t seem worth it due to the shortness of the flight and the lack of true 1st class service on most airlines.

          1. The point I’m trying to make is that most people don’t have the money to shop by any other factor except price. So anything the government will do that will result to fare increases won’t be welcomed.

        2. The fares have not gone down since the major carriers went to an a la carte pricing.  It is a mind game they are playing with the traveling public.  We all want a decent price on a ticket, but most of us want a reasonable travel experience, too.

    2. nice idea but it won’t work–I can see and hear it now.  Seat 3c bought a meal but 3b didn’t and now wants one.  4a purchased beverage service but it’s not on the manifest.  Meals are gone by the time the FA’s get to the back of the plane and the last row all need paid for meals.

      Better, I think, for there to be a listing of usual and customary items–fee free online purchase, free printing of online boarding pass, a carry on all part of base fare.  A list of extras:  a checked bag and a seat assignment that are available when purchasing the ticket and visible on fare selection page.  Also on the fare selection page whether bathrooms, water, soft drinks, alcohol and meals are available free or for purchase.

  16. I don’t see why requiring that a basic amenity (baggage fees) be included and priced should cause too much controversy.  In California, gas stations are required to have water and air compressors (to inflate tires) available to any customer who purchases fuel.  They’re typically only turned on at the request of a paying customer, or can be coin-operated for those who don’t buy fuel.  Gas stations within a mile of a numbered highway are also required to have bathrooms that are open to anyone on request.

    I can’t find the bill listed though.  Has it been introduced yet?

      1. No, it is like forcing them to wrap that burger up or place it on a plate instead of cutting out those costs and just placing the hot burger right into your hand. 

  17. If Congress wants to protect travelers, maybe they should start by restricting the TSA’s authorization to grope and/or X-ray travelers.

  18. How about getting hit in the head by a laptop falling out of an overhead bin, suffering most probably a concussion followed by fall, sustaining two fractured rib and vertebra (five days in Frankfurt clinic) unable to depart on cruise in Venice then home to Orlando???   Who is responsible.  I think Lufthansa/Continental.

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