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Ed Perkins on Travel: Air travel consumer protections: What to expect

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This year, I fully expect to see a Department of Transportation (DoT) ruling that airlines must assure that any minor traveling with a family be seated adjacent to an adult family member without requiring either to pay an advance seat selection fee. But I wouldn't be surprised if that turns out to be the year's only important new consumer protection.

As I discussed last year, because many low-fare airline ticket classes require extra payment for advance seat assignments, staying together has become a major pain point for family groups. Clearly, requiring families to pay extra just to avoid being separated for a flight is unfair to everyone involved — families, children seated next to strangers, strangers seated next to unrelated children, and entire planeloads while flight attendants delay boarding to try to improvise family accommodation. It's a problem that airlines could easily solve without government regulation, but I've seen no initiatives along those lines. I believe that DoT recognizes the problem and considers that it has authority to regulate this problem. So I'd be very surprised if DoT doesn't act.

Last year, we consumer advocates nominated the two current major pain points for air travelers. Family seating was one, failure to provide cash refunds for canceled and delayed flights was the other. Over the last two years, airlines have given out credits or vouchers for future travel rather than cash refunds — credits with a one- or two-year expiration dates. Consumers would like to see rules that require airlines to provide cash refunds for any future Covid-related cancellations and either to convert outstanding vouchers to cash or at least extend their validity indefinitely. DoT seems to be in agreement about rules for future refunds, but isn't sure that it even has the authority to require any changes to previously issue credits. Accordingly, you might see some action on future refunds, but I doubt this action will include refunds or extensions of existing credits.

Consumer Reports recently asked subscribers to join a petition to DoT Secretary Pete Buttigieg for a comprehensive "Passenger Bill of Rights" that includes "uniform, transparent, and enforceable rules" providing "compensation and accommodations for flight cancellations, delays of varying hours, and mishandled baggage. These rights should also allow passengers to cancel flights without financial penalties during an ‘Act of God’ condition, and prohibit charging fees for families with young children to sit together." CR hopes to get 50,000 signatures; as of Friday, it has 15,679. If you agree, you can sign the petition here.

Much as I agree with the CR position, I would be surprised to see such a comprehensive Bill of Rights this year. But DoT does count numbers, and maybe 50,000 petitioners would be enough to jump start what is normally a slow bureaucratic process. DoT staffs are justifiably concerned about establishing a firm basis in law for any action they propose. For that reason, getting such a comprehensive bill might well require congressional action — and you know how iffy that can be this or any other year.

Other issues currently floated by individual consumer advocates include:

• The right for a passenger on a seriously delayed or canceled flight to be transferred to another airline without additional payment. In pre-deregulation days, all big lines' tariffs contained this provision as "Rule 240," but that's long gone and needs to return.

• Right of action. The right to take legal action against airlines in state and local courts. Federal pre-emption of all authority over airline matters effectively bars air travelers from access to practical legal redress, and that should end. Also, state governments should be able to enforce business practice regulations on airlines.

• Minimum seat size. A right to seats and aisles with enough space to permit safe evacuation in the event of a survivable crash. Economy class seats have been getting smaller and people have been getting bigger. Travelers need some assurance that seating won't get even worse than it is now.

Don't hold your breath for success of any of these issues this year.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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