We are entering the endgame for the proposed passenger rights regulations and for Congressional action to mandate airline fee transparency. Nothing is set in stone at this time. Department of Transportation (DOT) activities with the rulemaking evidently have been moved from the depths of the department to the Secretary’s office and will be sent to the Office of Management and Budget. The FAA bill is moving rapidly through Congress.
From the passengers’ and industry stakeholders’ points of view, the DOT actions are cloaked in secrecy. The open comment period closed in late September and since then the DOT has been making changes to their proposed rulemaking based on those comments. No one except the DOT staff working on the final bill really knows the specifics.
What we do know, is that if the new regulations emerge like they were proposed early last year, passengers will see the biggest increase in passenger rights since deregulation. This is major rulemaking covering extension of tarmac-delay rules to foreign carriers and all airports, clarification of customer service plans and their inclusion in contracts of carriage, restatement of denied boarding regulations including increased fines, a requirement to communication with passengers during flight delays and cancellations, changes in advertising disclosure rules, mandated airline fee transparency and prohibition of post purchase price increases.
But nothing is cast in stone yet and DOT has not provided any clear clues as to the direction that they are moving in any of these areas since the close of comments.
On the Congressional side of the equation, passenger protections are part of the giant FAA reauthorization act of 2011. After being extended now 17 times, both the House and the Senate seem determined to move this bill forward before the end of March. In Congressional-time, that is lightning speed.
The Senate bill has been passed and is ready for conference committee work, however, the conferencees will have plenty of work to do. In their rush to move the bill through the Senate the bill was passed without even changing the effective dates and with only a handful of amendments. If it were to become law today, it would only last through next October. But, the Senate version has consumer protections built in for tarmac-delays and for limited price transparency.
The House version of the FAA bill, H.R. 658, has been passed out of committee and will shortly be coming up for a floor vote. This bill has no passenger protections. The Consumer Travel Alliance together with Consumers Union have been working to get the price transparency issues included in the final bill after the conference committee. To that end both organizations are meeting with Represenatatives and staffers to get this consumer-friendly language in the bill mandating a DOT rulemaking to:
Prepare a rulemaking that will mandate that all airlines, foreign and domestic, disclose airfares, all mandatory or optional fees and taxes in such a manner that the total cost of travel is available to passengers for across-airline price comparisons and purchase through all sales channels with which any airline agrees to do business.
Though this kind of wording may already be included in the DOT proposed rulemaking, Congressional action will codify total transportation cost transparency.
A lot is happening in the airline passenger rights world in a very concentrated timeframe. By mid-Spring the passenger-rights landscape may be significantly strengthened with new legal rights and airlines will be required to disclose all of their fees through all points of airline ticket sales.