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Sun Sentinel: Travel consumer issues status report


Ed Perkins on April 13, 2017

Sun Sentinel 

Travelers are looking at a bunch of proposals for making travel more consumer-friendly. Laws and rules up for consideration cover most of the main pain points, but action on virtually all issues is currently stalled.

Outrageous ticket change fees. Fees up to $700 to change an airline ticket don't affect a majority of you, but they hit hard on those they hit. The airlines' basic idea is to make sure that business travelers can't game the fare system by buying cheap tickets intended for leisure travelers. But when you're planning a trip, stuff happens that requires you to cancel and reschedule. Often, the stuff that happens -- sickness, death, or accident in the family -- is already stressful; losing hundreds of dollars per ticket is just piling on the grief.

Deceptive Hotel Price Advertising. TravelersUnited, the Business Travel Coalition, and I have submitted several requests to the Federal Trade Commission to outlaw mandatory hotel "resort" and similar fees as deceptive, but the FTC is apparently stalled.

Outlook: Action by FTC unlikely, but possible through individual state attorney general offices.

Shrinking Airline Seats. By just about any measure, today's coach/economy seats are too narrow, with too little legroom, to accommodate American travelers. And many people believe that today's tiny seats pose a health risk of deep-vein thrombosis and a safety risk of ability to evacuate a plane quickly enough to avoid fire/smoke danger in a survivable accident.

Several members of Congress have proposed laws asking DOT to make sure today's seats are safe, but DOT isn't interested. The airlines are strongly opposed, and the plane manufacturers claim they have data to prove today's planes can pass the 90-second evacuation test, but they don't release those test data.

Outlook: No action.

Airfare Search Transparency. Air Travel Fairness, its supporter Travel Tech, other consumer advocates, and several members of Congress are requesting the DOT to require that airlines provide full schedule and fare information to third-party online travel agencies (OTA) such as Expedia and metasearch systems such as TripAdvisor. Their request is based on consumers' need for access to side-by-side fare comparisons. Currently, Southwest provides no such access and Delta limits access to fare and schedule data. Airlines oppose, claiming their right to provide their own proprietary data however they choose.

Outlook: Doubtful but not impossible.

Open Skies. The "Big Three" legacy airlines -- American, Delta, and United -- are pushing to limit entry to the U.S. by the big Gulf and Middle Eastern airlines, as well as Norwegian. Such a limit would violate the "open skies" treaties already in place, but the U.S. lines say that the Gulf lines receive unfair government subsidies and Norwegian is trying to avoid taxes and to pay low wages.

The Gulf lines threaten their U.S. competitors mainly for business travel, but Norwegian, Lift, and WOW are bringing new low-fare travel available to U.S. travelers. Both sets of airlines have widespread support among consumer groups.

Outlook: Positive for consumers. Norwegian is adding routes as quickly as it can get the planes it has ordered.

Air Traffic Control "Privatization." The idea is to transfer the ATC function to a public corporation, such as TVA, with an independent source of funding, so that (1) private management can operate the system more efficiently, (2) funding is freed from the annual federal budget hassle, and instead (3) a private ATC corporation can do a much better planning and investment job.

Some airlines favor this proposal, a few oppose it, but the main opposition comes from general and business aviation interests, both of which believe they will wind up overpaying. For what it's worth, I'm parting company from several consumer organizations to support the idea.

Outlook: Anybody's guess.