Will this be the year for passenger rights?

The travel industry doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation for keeping its promises.

That’s true not just of the lofty low-price guarantees that some hotels offer but hedge with lawyerly fine print. It also applies to something as seemingly straightforward as an airline sticking to its published schedule. (Check the contract; it isn’t required to.)

So travelers might be forgiven for having been a little skeptical last year when they were promised help in the form of long-overdue government regulation and laws that would compel airlines to treat them better and tell the truth about their fares.

Maybe it’s a statement about the process, but the most commented-upon proposed rule had practically nothing to do with enhancing consumer protections. It was a new regulation to limit the consumption of peanuts on a plane.

“It was really amazing,” said Cynthia Farina, a professor of law at Cornell University, which helped create the site Regulationroom.org to collect consumer comments. “We had more comments on that than on all the rest – combined.”

Fitting, too. Today, with a president who seems to have taken a step back on regulation – signing an executive order last month that initiates a government-wide review of the proposed rules already on the books – and a Congress that has shifted rightward, many are wondering if the hopeful passenger rights rhetoric of 2010 is about to give way to a harsher reality.

I asked the Transportation Department whether the regulations were on track, and a representative said that a final rule should be issued in April, as scheduled. The agency isn’t talking much beyond that, but it’s likely that behind the scenes, comments are being collected, evaluated and weighed, and that there are ongoing conversations between the administration and the agency, says Cary Coglianese, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in the study of regulation and regulatory processes.

“The political climate has changed,” he said. “And that could affect the final rule.”

The government wants to require airlines to include all required fees in the advertised price of its tickets, instead of breaking out each surcharge and creating the illusion of a cheaper fare. It would like more airlines to adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays, to report more data on delays and to notify customers promptly of delays.

The Transportation Department also wants carriers to set minimum customer service standards, increase compensation for passengers denied boarding and stop airlines from raising the fare after a ticket has been bought. Plus, it wants to make customer service plans part of the contract of carriage – the legal agreement between airlines and customers – so that passengers can sue for breach of service.

As you can probably imagine, airlines are unhappy with the proposed rules. In comments filed with the department, several referred to a number of the new regulations as unwanted government interference, “harming rather than advancing the interests of both consumers and competition.” Coming from an important but fragile business like the airlines, those words are likely to have some effect on the final rule, say observers.

There’s also some momentum on the legislative side to give passengers more rights. The most prominent example is the Clear Airfare Amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill, proposed by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), which would compel airlines and travel agents to disclose the full price of a ticket, including taxes and fees. The amendment would also force earlier disclosure in the buying process of any fees for checked baggage, seating assignments, optional in-flight goods and services and other fees that may be charged after the ticket is purchased.

How much earlier is a matter of some debate. The latest version of the amendment reflects airline industry pressure on lawmakers to mandate disclosure only at the time of booking, which would basically codify the airlines’ deception about the total cost of a ticket. And everything hinges on the passage of the ambitious reauthorization bill, now in its 17th incarnation.

“Consumers have a right to know what they’re paying for,” Menendez said to me last week. “Travelers already pay enough without being hit with hidden fees.”

But the House leadership is sending mixed signals about passenger protections. Although Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said that the FAA bill is a “top priority,” he has also called for leaner, more streamlined legislation that “does more with less” – which suggests that some unnecessary amendments may be dropped before the bill is passed. Those may – or may not – include important airfare transparency provisions.

Seems to me that some difficult decisions lie ahead. Should the government, which promised to protect airline passengers last year, do the expedient thing – or the right thing?

A Southwest Airlines pilot faced a similar choice earlier this year, when he learned that a passenger on his flight from Los Angeles to Denver was running late.

Mark Dickinson of Sierra Vista, Ariz., was flying to Colorado to say goodbye to his 2-year-old grandson. Southwest, as it happens, has one of the worst on-time records in the industry; in November, the Transportation Department considered only 79 percent of its flights on time. So the pressure for a punctual departure must have been enormous.

But Dickinson’s circumstances were extraordinary and tragic: His grandson was on life support after having suffered a head injury when his mother’s boyfriend allegedly threw him across the room. This was Dickinson’s last chance to see the child before life support was removed.

It would have been easy for Southwest to fly without Dickinson. But the pilot held the plane for 12 long minutes. “They can’t go anywhere without me, and I wasn’t going anywhere without you,” he told Dickinson.

That wasn’t the expedient thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.

Will the government and our elected officials have the courage to do the right thing, too?

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook

Underwritten by

This site 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.

This site 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.

This site 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.

This site 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.

This site 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.

This site is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

This site 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.

This site 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.

This site is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

This site 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.

This site is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

This site 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.

This site 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.

This site 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.

This site 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.

This site is underwritten by Sungard Availability Services

Leveraging more than 35 years of experience, Sungard AS designs, builds and runs critical IT services that help businesses manage complex IT, adapt quickly and build resiliency and availability. A leading provider of critical production and recovery services, Sungard AS partners with customers across the globe, delivering resilient IT systems, infrastructure and recovery services tailored to achieving desired business outcomes.

This site 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.

This site 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.

This site 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.

This site 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.