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BTC hoping to see deceptive airline practices addressed in FAA bill

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The Business Travel Coalition (BTC) is appealing to the Senate to view the consumer as the “north star” as deliberations resume this week on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2016.

“Consumers are incensed about special-interest access to power in Washington where ordinary citizens’ interests are increasingly trampled upon,” said BTC founder Kevin Mitchell. “One only has to look at U.S. Rep. (Carlos) Curbelo’s (RFla.) amendment, accepted by the U.S. House Transportation Committee, that would injure consumers by – of all Orwellian machinations – reversing a critical U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) price-transparency rule in the name of ‘greater transparency.’

“Commercial aviation policy-making is a prism through which voter disillusionment can be readily discerned.”

The DOT has, in recent years, introduced consumer protections vis-à-vis unfair and deceptive airline practices. However, passengers do not enjoy the number and quality of consumer protections afforded consumers in other industries. Of similar concern, the BTC says, is that legally, airlines cannot be held to full account for consumer injuries anywhere near the degree to which suppliers in most other industries are held.

The BTC lists unfair or deceptive airline practices it hopes to see the Senate address as:

• failure to disclose the all-in price of travel before a consumer is locked into the purchase, e.g., a failure to tell a consumer there is a baggage or seat assignment fee.

• flouting the express admonitions of the DOT by renaming its fuel surcharge as a “carrier imposed charge,” circumventing the DOT’s “Additional Guidance on Airfare/ Air Tour Price Advertisements” of Feb. 21, 2012, which requires airlines to tie fuel surcharges to actual cost.

• imposing a $400 fuel surcharge or carrier- imposed charge when a consumer redeems miles for a trip, even though the price of oil has fallen 70 percent since June 2014, and even though the DOT considers airline loyalty points as a discount for future travel in return for a consumer’s repeat business.

• failure to make available frequent flier seats sufficient to meet demand.

• advertising rock-bottom airfares but providing insufficient inventory to meet any reasonable definition of demand.

• charging $200 – six to seven times the cost of handling a ticket change – when the cost to airlines for consumer contact with a call center to change a reservation ranges from $25-$35.

• mishandling the carriage of a pet leading to injury or death.

• failing to deliver a service at a level a consumer would reasonably expect, such as a) when an airline damages or loses a customer’s baggage and the airline fails to issue a refund or there is an excessive delay for the refund, b) when a customer cancels a flight and the airline fails to issue a refund or there is an excessive delay for a refund, and c) when an airline pursues a practice of a high percentage of over-sales and involuntary bumpings.

• failing, prior to a consumer’s purchase, to disclose the flight being booked is on the DOT’s list of chronically late flights and is thus a highly defective product.

• refusing at small- to medium-sized airports to allow competitors access to leased gates on customary terms, maintaining its dominant market position by blocking new entrant competition.

In recent years, the U.S. has gone from 10 airlines controlling some 80 percent of domestic seat capacity to just four airlines.

“A financially viable air transportation system is critically important to the social and economic goals of the United States,” the BTC writes. “However, competitive concentration has led to airline policies and practices that are increasingly in violation of 49 U.S.C. 41712 and, as such, undermine the interests of consumers.”

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