Election results and consumer travel rights


The reelection of President Obama and the new group of Democratic senators coming to Washington is good news for consumers in terms of consumer protections. The current administration, especially in the Department of Transportation, has been the most consumer-friendly in the history of the country. But turnovers in leadership both in DOT and Congress will be changing the legislative and regulatory landscape.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been proactive in helping level the playing field for consumers against misinformation from airlines. His department has spearheaded improvements to the rail system in the country that, in the long run, is the right path for America. And, the current DOT highway programs have pumped more money into infrastructure in a shorter time than ever before.

The Secretary of Transportation himself is getting ready to depart. That will leave a giant consumer-friendly vacuum to fill. Few names have even been floated for that position. However, the internal positions at DOT will probably remain intact, which bodes well for ongoing consumer rulemakings.

The addition of Elizabeth Warren — the vision person behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — to the US Senate can’t help but raise the visibility of consumers across all issues. She will provide a focus for many new consumer initiatives as the country moves through the coming year.

Within the Senate and House, both sides of the aisle have been interested in working with consumer groups when their issues have been presented in thoughtful and constructive manners.

The House Republican-controlled committees have been far more proactive with consumer issues when dealing with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and among the most interested in how the new air traffic control systems will help the common traveler.

Although the current chairman, John Mica, was instrumental in shaping TSA, he is appalled at how the organization has grown to be top-heavy and ineffective. Hearings have examined every aspect of TSA’s operation and the committee has recommended severe restrictions.

In the most important Congressional committees that deal with travel, there will be major changes in leadership. Here is how the chairmanship merry-go-round is shaping up:

• The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will stay in the hands of its present chairman, Sen. Rockefeller from West Virginia.

• The Republican (Ranking Member) of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Kay Bailey Hutchison, is leaving the Senate and will be replaced, perhaps, by Jim DeMint.

•The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica of Florida, and its Aviation Subcommittee Chairman, Thomas Petri from Wisconsin, are faced with term limits and will not be returning. Their replacements are still up in the air.

• Plus, the experienced top-ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is retiring and will be replaced in the coming months.

Except for Sen. Rockefeller, it will be a clean sweep for all committees that have major responsibility for airline and highway legislation.

It looks like the Consumer Travel Alliance and other advocacy groups working with these committees will have new personnel in the committees and, more importantly, on the committee and Senatorial staff to deal with, meet and educate.

As this piece is written, the House committees are planning hearings about TSA from a consumer traveler point of view. It will be the first time that the TSA’s effects on travelers will be explored during a committee hearing and the first time that airline consumer advocates are invited to present before the committee.

Within the Department of Transportation, the enforcement division has been more active than ever enforcing the new advertising rules that were put into effect over the past two years. DOT is also preparing a proposed rulemaking that may change the way airlines disclose ancillary fees and how online travel agencies display airfares and notify consumers which airlines are included in their listings.

All of this is good news for consumers moving forward. Some of the main players within the system are changing, but the willingness to work with consumers from both the Democratic and Republican sides of Capitol Hill, combined with the continued consumer-focused efforts coming from DOT, have put consumer travelers in the best position they have had since airline deregulation.

Additionally, the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections will be meeting during the year and will add another impetus to consumer issues with its consumer-oriented team of the Consumer Travel Alliance director and the Attorney General of Illinois. These two members, together with a representative each from airports and the airlines, provide a never-before-available forum which can discuss consumer issues and come up with industry-supported solutions.