When law­mak­ers sit on their hands, no won­der fliers are cranky

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. E-mail him at chris@el­liott.org.

What has Wash­ing­ton done for air­line pas­sen­gers lately?

That’s the ques­tion prompted by two re­cent po­lit­i­cal scan­dals that have touched the tourism world. But the an­swer — or the lack of an an­swer — may be far more trou­bling than the al­leged mis­con­duct.

First was news that Rep. Bill Shus­ter (R-Pa.), who chairs the House Trans­porta­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee, is dat­ing Shel­ley Ru­bino, an air­line lob­by­ist. Con­sumer ad­vo­cates claim the re­la­tion­ship has in­flu­enced Shus­ter’s com­mit­tee, in­clud­ing the adop­tion of a bill called the Trans­par­ent Air­fares Act.

The other dust-up in­volves a re­port that the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in New Jer­sey is look­ing into al­le­ga­tions that United Air­lines em­ploy­ees made im­proper at­tempts to in­flu­ence an of­fi­cial of the Port Author­ity of New York & New Jer­sey by adding a rev­enue-los­ing flight from Ne­wark to Columbia, S.C., to its sched­ule.

Th­ese in­ci­dents, and the fall­out from them, are un­likely to af­fect your next flight, let alone your sum­mer va­ca­tion. But they made me won­der whether air trav­el­ers were pay­ing at­ten­tion to what hap­pens in Wash­ing­ton.

Does any­one care? I asked nu­mer­ous trav­el­ers whether they could name one re­cent piece of leg­is­la­tion that helped them. The an­swer? Crick­ets.

So I turned to Air­lines for Amer­ica (A4A), an air­line trade group. A spokes­woman of­fered re­sponses that are un­likely to res­onate with the av­er­age trav­eler. They in­clude sig­nif­i­cant, but rel­a­tively ob­scure con­gres­sional achieve­ments such as end­ing se­ques­tra­tion-re­lated de­lays in 2013, restora­tion of the roundtrip pas­sen­ger se­cu­rity tax cap and the pas­sage of the last bud­get, which in­cluded more than 800 cus­toms of­fi­cers for avi­a­tion.

I sent a note to Jim Bil­limo­ria, a spokesman for Shus­ter’s com­mit­tee, and asked for a list of its leg­isla­tive ac­com­plish­ments, be­sides the ones re­ported in the news re­cently. His an­swer was a link to a news re­lease that touted the com­mit­tee’s re­cent mea­sures to en­sure that cell­phones can’t be used to make calls in cab­ins and ef­forts to save tax­pay­ers money through the more ef­fi­cient use of fed­eral build­ing space.

“When it comes to cell­phones on planes,” Shus­ter said in the news re­lease, “tap, don’t talk.”

Per­haps that’s why trav­el­ers seem un­der­whelmed. When ar­guably the most pow­er­ful travel com­mit­tee in Wash­ing­ton an­swers a ques­tion about its achieve­ments with “tap, don’t talk,” can con­sumers be for­given for feel­ing as though Wash­ing­ton doesn’t care? In­stead of deal­ing with is­sues that re­ally mat­ter to trav­el­ers, leg­is­la­tors are nib­bling around the edges, pass­ing bills that make no no­tice­able dif­fer­ence to the av­er­age air trav­eler.

Sally Green­berg, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Na­tional Con­sumers League, sees it as a mas­sive, sys­temwide fail­ure.

“There’s no reg­u­la­tion or over­sight of the air­line in­dus­try,” she says. “The Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion is a pa­per tiger. There have been no con­gres­sional hear­ings or over­sight for the past five years.”

Green­berg says Wash­ing­ton’s big­gest achieve­ment was the 2011 adop­tion of a reg­u­la­tion that al­lows most air trav­el­ers to cancel their flights within a day of mak­ing a reser­va­tion, the so­called 24-hour rule, tech­ni­cally a reg­u­la­tion for which the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment is re­spon­si­ble. An­other popular reg­u­la­tion, which re­quires air­lines to dis­close all manda­tory fees at the time of the ticket pur­chase, would be un­done if Shus­ter’s Trans­par­ent Air­fares Act be­comes law.

“Pas­sen­ger rights leg­is­la­tion can’t get a hear­ing,” agrees Paul Hud­son, pres­i­dent of Fly­er­srights.org, a con­sumer ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion. “Air­line pas­sen­ger rep­re­sen­ta­tives have been ef­fec­tively barred from tes­ti­fy­ing on the air­line and air­port pro­pos­als to pri­va­tize air traf­fic con­trol, abol­ish the TSA and re­turn to pri­vate pre-9/11 se­cu­rity, whole­sale FAA del­e­ga­tion of safety reg­u­la­tion to the in­dus­try and re­peal the few DOT con­sumer pro­tec­tion reg­u­la­tions.”

Hud­son’s group has a long list of leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ties. They in­clude end­ing air­line ex­emp­tion from all state and lo­cal con­sumer pro­tec­tion laws, restor­ing reg­u­la­tions that min­i­mized travel de­lays, and fund­ing a pas­sen­ger com­plaint hot­line. But none of th­ese ideas are likely to be se­ri­ously con­sid­ered be­cause, as Green­berg noted, Congress is “in bed” with the in­dus­try.

It’s no won­der that Congress can’t do any­thing for the av­er­age trav­eler, says Kevin Mitchell, pres­i­dent of the Busi­ness Travel Coali­tion, which ad­vo­cates for busi­ness fliers. Mem­bers of Congress aren’t re­warded just for sup­port­ing pro-air­line agen­das, like the re­cent in­dus­try push to block Persian Gulf car­ri­ers from com­pet­ing with do­mes­tic car­ri­ers. Air­lines re­turn the love by mak­ing gen­er­ous cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions and cod­dling law­mak­ers and their staff with pref­er­en­tial treat­ment, waiv­ing many ticket rules for them. Maybe, he adds, it’s bet­ter off that air trav­el­ers are in the dark.

“The Amer­i­can peo­ple would be sad­dened and sick­ened to learn that mem­bers of Congress not only put their per­sonal in­ter­ests be­fore their con­stituents, but also can go much fur­ther and in­flict fi­nan­cial harm on all of the trav­el­ing public,” he says.

The tim­ing of th­ese scan­dals could trans­late into bad news for the air­line in­dus­try, says Charles Leocha, pres­i­dent of Trav­el­ers United, an ad­vo­cacy group that I co-founded. The most ob­vi­ous op­por­tu­nity to af­fect air­line pol­icy, the up­com­ing Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion reau­tho­riza­tion bill, is on this sum­mer’s agenda, and wide­spread un­hap­pi­ness with the air­line in­dus­try’s un­due in­flu­ence on Congress could weaken its ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tion.

The only way to en­sure Wash­ing­ton does some­thing? Apart from elect­ing a new leg­is­la­ture, you can by­pass Congress en­tirely.

“Com­plain, com­plain, com­plain,” Leocha says. “Com­plain in writ­ing to the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion about packed planes, tight seat­ing, hid­den fees and can­cel­la­tion and change fees. When DOT gets a se­ries of com­plaints, they do spring into ac­tion.”

Two re­cent po­lit­i­cal scan­dals are un­likely to af­fect your next flight, let alone your sum­mer va­ca­tion. But they made me won­der whether air trav­el­ers were pay­ing at­ten­tion to what hap­pens in Wash­ing­ton.

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