EU commissioner on airline Web sites: “There is more work to be done”

First, the bad news: European airlines still routinely deceive customers when it comes to air fares, according to a new report by the EU. But there’s also good news — it’s not happening as often, thanks to tighter government regulation.

“Many people are attracted to buying a ticket from one of these sites by their very low prices,” says the EU’s chief consumer advocate, Meglena Kuneva. “However, what they do not realize is that the price quoted does not include items such as tax, etc. In the end the person ends up paying much more than was initially advertised. This is clearly forbidden by EU law.”

Kuneva, who made the comments on her blog this morning, unveiled the results of the work the EU undertook over the last two years to clean up airline ticket selling Web sites.

“There were – and still are – serious problems in this area,” she notes, adding, “There is more work to be done.”

The outcome of the work we have done in this field is encouraging. In 2007 the Commission coordinated a simultaneous investigation of airline Web sites by the national authorities that enforce consumer legislation, known as a “sweep”. Many serious breaches were discovered. Almost all of these infringements have now been resolved, and I’d like to congratulate the national authorities for their work on this. Of course, things are by no means perfect and we still have work to do.

Of 67 airline sites examined, 16 complied fully with EU legislation and are committed to maintaining these standards, Kuneva says. Another 40 airlines immediately gave the EU a commitment to correct their sites when they were informed about the problems identified.

The EU leads the world when it comes to consumer protection for airline passengers. But it needs help. In a gesture that would be unthinkable in the United States, the commissioner appealed to passengers for help.

Most importantly, you, the consumer, have a decisive role to play in keeping up pressure on airlines not to continue or slip back to unacceptable behavior. Nobody is better placed than the customer to immediately spot dubious practices and to complain to companies, to consumer bodies and to their national authorities.

If airlines know that consumers are well-informed and watchful, and will not let them easily get away with illegal conduct, the likelihood is much higher that they will play by the rules.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see the government take the passenger’s side here in the States, for a change?

It’s official: airlines must double compensation for bumped passengers

Just in time for the busy summer travel season, the Transportation Department this morning announced a series of steps designed to calm the frayed nerves of air travelers, including a new rule that doubles the limit on compensation airlines must pay passengers who are involuntarily bumped from their flight.

The measures are outlined in a lengthy announcement outlining initiatives designed to “strengthen passenger protections, improve consumer choice and reduce congestion,” according to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters.

Well, somebody hose me down.

Among the steps:

Clearing the air. Peters announced new air traffic measures designed to help cut delays this summer. The first involves new flexibility for aircraft to use alternative routes in the sky to avoid severe weather. This includes a new routing alternative that provides an “escape route” into Canadian airspace from the New York metropolitan area so airlines can fly around summer thunderstorms and high winds.

Adding another “lane” in the sky. The Federal Aviation Administration will open a second westbound route for aircraft to New York. That’s the equivalent of building another interstate highway lane in the sky. It would, in effect, provide a parallel route along a heavily-traveled aviation corridor, helping cut westbound delays from the New York area.

More money for bumped passengers. A new rule (which I blogged about when it was first being considered) goes into effect next month under which air travelers who are involuntarily bumped would receive up to $400 if they are rescheduled to reach their destination within two hours of their original arrival time or four hours for international flights, and up to $800 if they are not rerouted within that timeframe.

But the Transportation Department buried the proverbial lede, as they say in journalism.

In its announcement, it pointed to an obscure government Web site called FightGridlock.gov, which led to a page that discusses a wider range of possible initiatives that could help air travelers.

Those include a proposed new rule that would increase the airline service quality performance data carriers currently report to the government on information related to canceled or diverted flights. And there are proposals designed to require airlines to create legally binding contingency plans for extended tarmac delays, respond to all consumer complaints within 30 days, publish complaint data online, and provide on-time performance information for international flights in addition to domestic flights.

You know, I read the Federal Register every day and didn’t see any of these proposals. Chances are, neither did you. Sadly, the time to comment on these ideas has already passed.

Grrrr.

Happy Valentines Day — here’s your ice storm

I realize that Valentines Day isn’t until tomorrow, but what’s 24 hours between friends? Here’s your ice storm. Here are your airport delays. It’s looking a lot like Valentines Day 2007, isn’t it?

I doubt it will be anywhere near as bad. But this is as good a time as any to ask what we’ve learned from last year’s ice storm.

JetBlue, the airline most affected by the Valentines Day storm of 2007, has a new CEO and new policies designed to stop another hostage crisis from happening. I’d call that a lesson learned.

Sadly, the incipient passenger rights movement born after the ice storm is now on life support. The most credible of the passenger rights advocates, Kate Hanni, is expected to say a few words on the one-year anniversary of the storm. But I’m not sure it will be enough.

I covered the troubles of the passenger rights movement in a recent MSNBC column and concluded that unless passengers get behind the movement now, it’s over. (Anyone who thinks a handful of “passenger rights” bills in state legislatures won’t be killed on the federal level is smoking something very illegal, and I want some.)

There’s a lesson not learned. When you have the momentum, make the changes you can now. I think passenger rights advocates spent too much time talking and squandered two seasons of free publicity. Now it’s all but too late to do anything.

And the airline industry? I hate to say this, but my hat’s off to the airlines and the Air Transport Association. They managed last year’s string of PR disasters by the book, and discovered that there’s no problem you can’t overcome by throwing either money, or lobbyists — or both — at it. If only they were on the right side of this argument.

And me? I’m sitting out this ice storm out in Orlando, where it’s going to be 75 degrees today. That’s my lesson learned. Steer clear of the storm altogether.