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. The names of these consumer advocates might not be familiar to the average passenger. However, you might want to thank them the next time your flight goes smoothly.
Transportation Department airline fines
For example, if you’ve wondered who’s behind all those Transportation Department airline fines, you can partially thank Ben Edelman. He has filed dozens of complaints. He 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. He is an associate professor at Harvard Business School. You can see Edelman’s guide to navigating the system on his website.
Leveraging the DOT for Airline Complaints
Complaining to the DOT can yield significantly greater effectiveness than resorting to a mere call to an airline or expressing grievances on social media. This action prompts a top airline lawyer to provide an official, on-the-record response. Subsequently, a thorough evaluation and ruling are carried out by the agency. Edelman has extensively submitted complaints to the department, encompassing instances where airlines neglected to honor price quotes and misrepresented contracts. As a result of his inquiries, fines have been imposed, with a particularly notable instance being a $100,000 consent order against Air Europa. This order was due to the misrepresentation of carrier-imposed surcharges as “taxes” during the online booking process.
Advocating for Safer Skies
Paul Hudson may not be a household name, but you can credit him for persuading the government to federalize aviation security. Making air travel safer, by replacing private security operated by airlines and airports with the Transportation Security Administration. Hudson embraced consumer advocacy after Ralph Nader spoke at his law school in 1973. Currently, he holds the position of executive director at FlyersRights.org, a nonprofit organization advocating for air travelers.
Elevating Air Travel Experience
If you haven’t heard of FlyersRights.org, perhaps you’ve benefited from one of the regulations it has championed. For example, there’s the Tarmac Delay Rule, which imposes fines on 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.
Championing the Cause
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.)
Advocacy on Two Fronts
“It’s a no man’s land,” Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, acknowledges. The coalition primarily represents corporate travel managers, yet it frequently champions causes that also hold advantages for individual travelers.
If you enjoy flying on JetBlue or any of the other airlines that were founded after 1996, you can partially credit Mitchell for that experience. 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.
Empowering Passengers Through Untied.com and Legal Battles
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 has been an associate professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at McGill University in Montreal. During this time, he has provided assistance to tens of thousands of United Airlines passengers. His efforts have made a significant impact on a large number of travelers who have sought help and guidance.
What particularly vexes United is his action of disclosing the names and email addresses of certain senior members within the airline’s management. This action doesn’t enjoy protection under Canadian law.
In 2012, United took legal action against Cooperstock. The result was an injunction issued by the Quebec Superior Court. This injunction prevented Cooperstock from sharing names or contact details of United personnel, except those officially designated by the airline.
In another legal development
United pursued a parallel lawsuit against Cooperstock in the Federal Court of Canada. Within this lawsuit, United made a specific request to the judge. They presented a request to the judge. This request was regarding the transfer of Cooperstock’s domain. This web address had been established before United even launched their own website. Their request was for the domain to be transferred to United Airlines. “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. Sites on the Internet, including my own, now fill the space with the publication of executive contacts.
This unlikely team of college professors, lawyers, and former executives has already made air travel safer and assisted more air travelers than can be counted.
At a time when deregulatory winds are blowing across the airline industry, we need their efforts more than ever. They probably won’t appear as talking heads on cable TV, but you can rest assured that they will quietly work in the background to ensure that your passenger rights are respected. You can also contact my team of advocates to help with your travel disputes.