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Consumer groups urge Secretary Buttigieg to have U.S. DOT fulfill consumer protection responsibilities

Traveler advocates impressed with Secretary’s transformational vision to consider consumer needs in aviation oversight

Contact: See below

WASHINGTON, DC—Representatives of several leading U.S. consumer and traveler groups today met with U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg to urge action on the most pressing consumer protection priorities affecting consumers flying commercial airlines. It was the first time representatives of consumer groups were granted a meeting with a U.S. Secretary of Transportation in nearly five years.

The representatives found Secretary Buttigieg keenly interested in the important issues currently affecting travelers, and were impressed with his transformational vision for protecting consumers’ rights, increasing airline competition, and safeguarding passenger health and safety while flying on commercial airlines through U.S. airports.

Action Urged on Most Urgent Consumer Challenges

John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud for the National Consumers League, urged the secretary to make consumer protection a strategic priority for the DOT. Breyault stressed that, due to federal preemption and previous court decisions, DOT is the sole consumer protection agency that flyers can turn to for redress for airline industry abuses. He further urged that consumer advocacy and passenger rights organizations be given access to policy-making processes at DOT and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on par with the airlines that the agencies regulate.

Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of Travel Fairness Now, presented the groups’ position on ticket refunds and expiring travel credits given to travelers in lieu of full refunds for COVID-19-related cancellations. Ebenhoch shared the groups’ consensus-position that DOT must immediately ensure that ticket vouchers issued during the COVID-19 pandemic will never expire. DOT’s upcoming “Airline Ticket Refunds” notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) must ensure that airlines can never again deceptively steer consumers toward ticket vouchers when they have a right to a full refund because of airline-initiated flight cancellations. In addition, DOT must ensure that consumers holding non-refundable tickets who cancelled travel plans because they chose not to fly during COVID due to their doctor’s recommendation, local, state or federal health regulations or other medical guidance, be provided refunds if they cannot or do not want to use the voucher they were given.

From Consumer Reports, William J. McGee, aviation adviser, and Anna Laitin, director of financial fairness and legislative strategy, urged DOT to start a rulemaking to address the most egregious of all fees, so as to ensure that families with children 13 and under can always sit together on flights without incurring additional fees or purchasing tickets at higher fares. Despite a 2016 congressional directive for DOT to address this issue, nothing has been done, and a Freedom of Information Act request from Consumer Reports indicates children as young as three, two, and even one year old have been assigned seats alone. Obviously, such policies also compromise evacuation safety and COVID-19 health protocols, and can even put children at risk of sexual assaults.

Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, pressed the case for DOT to initiate a rulemaking for minimum seat sizes and to update emergency evacuation standards, to be completed within one year. Passengers have been getting larger while airlines have been aggressively shrinking seat legroom and width for decades. Passenger space is currently completely unregulated. The FAA has steadfastly resisted any minimum seat-size standards, notwithstanding a 2015 passenger group rulemaking petition, an adverse appeal court decision, a 2018 Congressional mandate, a May 2020 report by FAA’s Emergency Evacuation Advisory Rulemaking Committee and a September 2020 DOT Inspector General’s report that criticized current FAA emergency evacuation testing standards as outdated and badly flawed.

Linda Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action, who concluded for the consumer groups, stated, “It was immensely gratifying for consumer advocates to be welcomed to discuss our concerns directly with Secretary Buttigieg. Now we have trust that the DOT will make full use of its critical consumer protection responsibility to ensure that the flying public is treated fairly by airlines. What a change a new administration makes--and just in time, as millions of Americans take to the skies again! We look forward to continued collaboration with the Secretary and his talented team.”

Members of the news media are welcome to contact the presenters listed above for more details on the priorities presented to the Secretary.

CONTACTS

John Breyault, National Consumers League - [email protected] -703.864.1976

Kurt Ebenhoch, Travel Fairness Now - [email protected] - 312.983.2369

Michael McCauley, Consumer Reports - [email protected] - 914.378.2029

Paul Hudson, FlyersRights.org - [email protected]  -  410.940.8934

Linda Sherry, Consumer Action  -  [email protected] – 202.544.3088

 

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