Airline executive testimony conflicts with travelers’ reality

By Eden Iscil, Public Policy Associate

Last month, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing titled “Oversight of the U.S. Airline Industry,” which featured the CEOs of the major domestic airlines (American, Delta, Southwest, and United). With the federal government’s $50 billion bailout of the aviation industry serving as the primary focus of the hearing, airline CEOs managed to avoid serious scrutiny despite the massive service failures seen in 2021 and early 2022.  

The underlying problem centers around the air traffic companies choosing to incentivize employees to leave their jobs, despite receiving billions of dollars in assistance from the federal government with the primary condition being not to fire workers. The bailout, officially known as the Payroll Support Program, served as an undeniably central piece to America’s quick economic rebound from the early COVID-19 recession. Yet, airlines still could not service hundreds of thousands of flights over the past seven months due to a lack of staffing. This caused a meltdown of delays and cancellations in the summer and early fall of 2021 and again during the end-of-year holidays over the previous two weeks. 

While certain conditions understandably contributed to flight schedule changes, such as the Omicron variant, the airlines’ lack of preparation remains a consistent problem. For example, in October 2021, Southwest Airlines cancelled more than 2,000 flights, blaming weather and FAA issues. But these excuses do not hold water, as consumers quickly pointed out that while Southwest cancelled 28 percent of its schedule, competitors only cancelled around 3 percent of their flights. A couple weeks later, CEO Gary Kelly acknowledged staffing shortages that had led to Southwest’s service problems. 

The reality travelers have faced does not match the rosy picture airline executives painted at the Senate hearing. Southwest’s Kelly expressed pride in not cutting hours or laying off employees throughout the pandemic. Yet, his airline was still understaffed at the end of October (according to Southwest’s own hiring goals) after the airline reduced its workforce by 28 percent at the onset of the pandemic. To get around the prohibition on involuntary firing, air traffic carriers like Southwest incentivized early retirement and extended time off packages. The results of these practices are visible in every major airport nationwide. 

Additionally, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told senators that “large events” of cancellations “don’t happen very often” and that a shortage of employees is not a problem. Just a week later, airlines began experiencing staffing troubles, which led to more than 18,000 flight cancellations between Christmas Eve and January 3. Given the predictable spike in COVID infections we have seen during periods of high travel for almost two years, especially during the winter holidays, it is unclear why airlines were entirely unprepared for the latest holiday traffic.  

To be clear, employees absolutely should not report to work when they are ill (hopefully by taking paid sick leave). Given the record-breaking transmissibility of the Omicron variant, workers’ safety needs to remain paramount. It is unfortunate that airlines did not take steps to rectify previous mistakes and increase staffing ahead of the winter travel season in order to avoid the enormous wave of cancellations. In addition to the headaches and last-minute adjustments stranded travelers needed to make, the service failures were especially impactful as this was the first holiday season for many people to enjoy with loved-ones since before the pandemic.

Groups offer support for Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous (FAIR) Fees Act of 2021

December 9, 2021

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org or (412) 945-3242

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League, Business Travel Coalition, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, and U.S. PIRG have signed onto a letter to Members of Congress in support of the Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous (FAIR) Fees Act of 2021. Their letter appears below:

Dear Chairman DeFazio, Ranking Member Graves, Chairman Larsen, and Ranking Member Graves:

The undersigned consumer advocacy organizations support the Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous (FAIR) Fees Act of 2021. This bill would protect consumers from unreasonable fees that airlines have reimposed as consumer demand to fly has rebounded from the pandemic.

Millions of consumers are annually charged excessive fees for checking baggage, changing reservations, canceling flights, and other services.[1] These fees are a major profit center for the airlines. For example, U.S. airlines collected $5.8 billion in baggage fees alone in 2019.[2] Compare this to analyst estimates that it costs airlines less than $20 per bag flown to provide the service.[3]  Furthermore, exaggerated change and cancellation fees are especially punitive as consumers cannot plan for unexpected events that force them to adjust their reservations.

The capture of more than 80% of domestic air traffic by just four U.S. airlines is a clear predicate of the rise in ancillary fees.[4] The non-competitive nature of the industry has allowed predatory practices to go unchallenged for too long. To be clear, airlines have the right to charge appropriate fees to cover operational costs and to make a profit. However, the supra-competitive amounts that airlines collect for providing basic services are unjustifiable. Prior to some ancillary fees being waived during the COVID-19 pandemic, such add-on fees were a steadily increasing source of revenue for the industry.[5] Now that the airlines’ moratorium on many of their fees has ended, we are concerned that this trend will resume.

The federal government must act to protect consumers from being forced to pay billions of dollars in bogus charges. The FAIR Fees Act, which has received bipartisan support,[6] would bring much-needed relief to travelers by requiring fees to be reasonable and reflect the actual costs of the services provided.

In addition to this immediate cost-saving benefit to consumers, the FAIR Fees Act would also direct the Department of Transportation to review any other fees charged by airlines and work to reduce airlines’ untaxed revenue. Since the IRS does not consider baggage fees or other ancillary fees to be related to the transport of a person, airlines do not pay excise taxes on the earnings they receive from these charges.[7] As ancillary charges have become a major source of revenue for the industry, this loophole has allowed airlines to avoid (conservatively) hundreds of millions of dollars in federal taxes.[8] Therefore, reining in ancillary fees would help reduce the amount of untaxed income this industry receives.

We applaud Representative Cohen for his continued leadership in protecting consumers from the exorbitant ancillary charges found on too many plane tickets. We urge your respective committees to report the legislation without delay.

Sincerely,

National Consumers League
Business Travel Coalition
Consumer Federation of America
Consumer Reports
U.S. PIRG

 

cc:       Members, House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure

[1] USA TODAY. Shopping for flights? Change fees and other pre-pandemic penalties are back or returning soon on cheapest tickets. April 2, 2021. Online: https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/airline-news/2021/04/02/covid-travel-airlines-change-fees-return-cheap-tickets-american-united/4805128001/

[2] CNBC. US airlines charged almost $5 billion in baggage fees last year—here’s how to avoid them. May 16, 2019. Online: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/15/us-airlines-brought-in-almost-5-billion-dollars-in-baggage-fees-last-year.html

[3] McCartney, Scott. “What It Costs An Airline to Fly Your Luggage,” Wall Street Journal. (November 25, 2008). Online: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB122757025502954613 (Note: $15 in November 2008 is equal to $19.11 when adjusted for inflation in September 2021, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

[4] Openmarketsinstitute.org. Airlines & Monopoly. Online: https://www.openmarketsinstitute.org/learn/airlines-monopoly

[5] Statista.com. Total ancillary revenue in the airline industry from 2011 to 2020. December 4, 2020. Online: https://www.statista.com/statistics/788849/airline-industry-ancillary-revenue/

[6] Office of Senator Edward J. Markey. “FAA Bill a Missed Opportunity to Protect Passengers from Ridiculous Airline Fees, Says Senator Markey.” Press release. (October 3, 2018) Online: https://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/faa-bill-a-missed-opportunity-to-protect-passengers-from-ridiculous-airline-fees-says-senator-markey

[7] Smarter Travel. If Fees Were Taxed, Would Airlines Ditch Them? July 16, 2020. Online: https://www.smartertravel.com/if-fees-were-taxed-would-airlines-ditch-them/

[8] Testimony of Dr. Gerald Dillingham (Director of Civil Aviation Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office) before the House Subcommittee on Aviation. (July 14, 2010) (“However, if checked bag fee revenues that airlines reported in fiscal year 2009 had been subject to the excise tax on domestic travel, it would have generated about $186 million, or somewhat less than 2 percent of the Trust Fund revenues for 2009.”) Online: https://www.congress.gov/event/111th-congress/house-event/LC6763/text?s=1&r=9

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Ten consumer advocacy organizations call for action on aviation consumer protection priorities in letter to DOT

August 27, 2021

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242

The Honorable Pete Buttigieg
Secretary
United States Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey, SE
Washington, DC 20590

RE: Promoting DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Mission and Passenger Priorities

Dear Secretary Buttigieg:

The undersigned consumer advocacy organizations appreciated the opportunity to meet with you on July 27. We welcomed your close attention to our recommendations for actions the Department of Transportation (“DOT” or “Department”) should take to promote and enhance consumer protection in the air travel marketplace. We are encouraged that under your leadership, consumer protection will not be an afterthought at the DOT.[1]

In that regard, we write today regarding the key priorities we identified during our meeting and to request meetings with appropriate officials as you move forward on implementation.

First, as we discussed, we hope you will be publicly and personally highlighting consumer protection as a key part of DOT’s mission. DOT is the sole consumer protection agency, at any level of government, with authority over the air travel industry. Your public statements about your expectations for consumer protection in the air travel marketplace will put the airlines on notice that the DOT under your leadership will vigorously enforce existing consumer protections and seek new ways to better protect travelers as the industry emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, and going forward.

Second, on the specific priorities we raised with you, all of which you were receptive to addressing, we ask that you help arrange for us to meet with the appropriate officials at DOT and FAA with authority to address these priorities. Those priorities include:

  • Taking immediate action to address the airlines’ practice of issuing expiring travel vouchers for flights not taken on account of the pandemic. The four major U.S. airlines had $10 billion in unused travel credits on their books at the end of 2020. Many billions of dollars in credits will expire this year, due in no small part to inconsistent airline rules regarding when such credits must be used.[2] As was the case last year, travelers continue to be caught in an untenable situation: either endanger their health by flying despite the risks to themselves and others from the resurgent COVID-19 virus, or lose their substantial ticket investments. We request that you publicly call on the airlines to grant refunds, or at the consumer’s option, provide indefinite extensions and transferability of vouchers, for travel that was scheduled to have occurred since the pandemic began. We also urge you to investigate whether the airlines’ failure to do so would constitute an unfair or deceptive practice under DOT’s §41712 authority. We appreciate that DOT has recognized the importance of addressing the more than 100,000 complaints it received in 2020 related to ticket refunds stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the ongoing enforcement action against Air Canada[3] and the planned NPRM on airline ticket refunds[4] do not adequately address the magnitude of this unprecedented situation. To date, no domestic airline has been fined by DOT for any anti-consumer transgressions identified during the pandemic. Conversely, DOT has not hesitated to fine passengers when justified, with fines totaling more than $1 million in 2021 alone.[5]
  • Fulfilling Congress’s directive that DOT address airlines’ family seating practices. Under the airlines’ current family seating practices, families traveling with small children must either forgo purchasing the most affordable classes of tickets or risk being seated far from their children during their flight. Recognizing this situation as indefensible, Congress directed the DOT to review and “if appropriate, establish a policy” directing air carriers to ensure that young children can be seated with their families at no additional cost.[6] But to date, DOT has limited its response to publishing a web page to educate the public about family seating and the availability of the DOT’s complaint process.[7] Separating young children from their families during flights not only creates needless anxiety; it also poses a safety risk during in-flight emergencies, and even puts children at increased risk of sexual assault.[8] We urge DOT to act on Congress’s directive and initiate a rulemaking to mandate that families with small children be seated together at no additional cost. In our view, the airlines’ family seating practices also constitute an unfair or deceptive practice under DOT’s §41712 authority,
  • Acting on Congress’s mandate that FAA establish minimum seat size standards. There currently exists no federally-mandated minimum seat size standard for U.S. airlines. Combined with badly out-of-date Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) emergency evacuation testing standards, the lack of a minimum seat size standard puts passengers at significant risk. Congress,[9] consumer groups,[10] an FAA advisory committee,[11] and the DOT’s Inspector General[12] have all called attention to this risk. The FAA’s continued resistance to establishing a minimum seat size standard led Congress to direct the FAA to do so no later than October 2019. It is now nearly two years since that deadline passed. The DOT should implement this Congressionally-mandated action without further delay.

As leisure travelers continue to power the airline industry’s taxpayer-supported recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the time for action by the DOT to address anti-consumer industry practices is now. The DOT cannot stand by while travelers endure unprecedented delays and cancellations, struggle to obtain refunds, are prevented from sitting with our children, and are squeezed into ever-shrinking and increasingly unsafe seats. The importance of prioritizing accountability for consumer protection has been highlighted anew in recent months, as the domestic airline industry has experienced a series of operational meltdowns, leading to thousands of delayed, canceled, and rescheduled flights, disrupting the travel plans of millions of American consumers.

Thank you again for the commitment you have given us to ensuring protection and fair treatment for the flying public.

Sincerely,

Business Travel Coalition
Consumer Action
Consumer Federation of America
Consumer Reports
EdOnTravel.com
FlyersRights.org
National Consumers League
Travelers United
Travel Fairness Now
U.S. PIRG

cc:

The Honorable Maria Cantwell, Chair, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & TransportationThe Honorable Roger Wicker, Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation
The Honorable Kyrsten Sinema, Chairman, Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovation
The Honorable Ted Cruz, Ranking Members, Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovation
The Honorable Peter DeFazio, Chairman, House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure
The Honorable Sam Graves, Ranking Member, House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure
The Honorable Rick Larsen, Chairman, House Subcommittee on Aviation
The Honorable Garret Graves, Ranking Member, House Subcommittee on Aviation
Blane Workie, Assistant General Counsel for the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection, DOT
John Putnam, Acting General Counsel and Deputy General Counsel, DOT

 

[1] Josephs, Leslie. (2021, July 28) Legroom, vouchers, seating fees: Consumer advocacy groups take complaints to DOT. CNBC.com. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/28/legroom-vouchers-seating-fees-consumer-travel-groups-take-complaints-to-dot-.html

[2] McCartney, Scott. (2021, March 17) The Airline and Hotel Pandemic Vouchers That May Prove Worthless. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-airline-and-hotel-pandemic-vouchers-that-may-prove-worthless-11615986078?mod=article_inline

[3] U.S. Department of Transportation. (2021, June 15) U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection Initiates Enforcement Proceeding Seeking Approximately $25 million Against Air Canada for Extreme Delays in Providing Required Refunds [Press release]. https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/us-department-transportations-office-aviation-consumer-protection-initiates

[4] https://www.reginfo.gov/public/do/eAgendaViewRule?pubId=202104&RIN=2105-AF04

[5] Federal Aviation Administration. (2021, August 19) FAA Fines Against Unruly Passengers Reach $1M [Press release]. https://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=26440

[6] FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016. §2309. https://www.congress.gov/114/plaws/publ190/PLAW-114publ190.pdf

[7] U.S. Department of Transportation. (2020, March 4) Family Seating. https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/family-seating

[8] Rosato, Donna. (2020, March 4) Airlines Fall Short in Fixing Family Seating Problems. Consumer Reports. https://www.consumerreports.org/air-travel/airline-fixes-to-family-seating-problems-fall-short/

[9] Silk, Robert. (2020 August 17) Travel Weekly. https://www.travelweekly.com/Travel-News/Airline-News/Congress-FAA-to-set-standards-for-seat-size-delay

[10] FlyersRights.org. (2021 August 17) The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat. https://flyersrights.org/f/the-case-of-the-incredible-shrinking-airline-seat

[11] Federal Aviation Administration. “Emergency Evacuation Standards Aviation Rulemaking Committee. https://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/committees/documents/index.cfm/committee/browse/committeeID/757

[12] U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General. (2020 September 16) FAA’s Process for Updating Its Aircraft Evacuation Standards Lacks Data Collection and Analysis on Current Evacuation Risks. https://www.oig.dot.gov/sites/default/files/FAA%20Oversight%20of%20Aircraft%20Evacuations%20Final%20Report%20-%2009-16-20.pdf

About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

National Consumers League calls on Congress, DOT to investigate flight cancellation crisis

August 6, 2021

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL) is today calling on Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation to take action to address the dramatic increase in flight cancellations that American consumers have been forced to endure this summer. In just the last 48 hours, Spirit Airlines canceled more than 400 flights, nearly 60 percent of its schedule, and American Airlines canceled nearly 350 flights. This follows on the heels of delays for nearly 10,000 flights and hundreds of additional cancellations in June.

NCL is urging Congress and the DOT to address this unacceptable situation and hold the airlines accountable for skirting around the requirements of agreements to accept more than $50 billion in tax-payer funded bailouts in 2020.

The following statement is attributable to NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud John Breyault:

“The situation in America’s airports has reached a crisis point. The airlines gladly accepted tens of billions of dollars in bailout money last year in order to save jobs. Nonetheless, they are now blaming thousands of cancellations and delays on not having enough workers.

“Who do they think they are kidding? The airlines are playing fast and loose with consumers, and it must stop. This scandal is stranding millions of Americans at the height of the summer travel season. Secretary Buttigieg and leaders in Congress should immediately take action to hold the airlines accountable for their failure to maintain adequate staffing. Airlines that cannot accommodate their passengers should immediately issue refunds with no questions asked. Interline agreements should be required so that passengers can be easily booked onto alternate airlines to complete their journeys. Congress should immediately open an investigation into whether the airlines’ use of early retirement packages and unpaid furloughs, combined with the threat of layoffs, constituted an illegal evasion of the bailout legislation’s staffing requirements.”

About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

National Consumers League statement on DOT’s Unfair and Deceptive Practices Rule

For immediate release: November 30, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC –The National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization, is deeply disappointed at the Department of Transportation’s decision late Friday to finalize its Rule on Defining Unfair or Deceptive Practices. The rulemaking, begun at the behest of the airlines’ biggest lobbying group, was opposed by NCL and a coalition of eight other consumer groups, five members of Congress, two FTC commissioners, and nearly 200 individual consumers.

The following statement is attributable to John Breyault, NCL vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud:

“The DOT’s decision, at the height of a pandemic, to kneecap its ability to protect millions of travelers from airline industry abuses is deeply disappointing. That the Department decided to do so on the Friday after Thanksgiving highlights that they hope this terrible decision will be forgotten by Monday. It should be clear to every member of the flying public that current DOT leadership is focused squarely on doing the airline industry’s bidding between now and January 20. It will be incumbent on the next Administration to undo this Rule, along with so many other anti-consumer actions taken over the past four years.”

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Delta and American ending change fees another victory for consumers

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL) today applauded Delta Airlines and American Airlines for their decisions to end ticket changes fees. The decision, prompted by United Airlines’ decision on Sunday to end change fees, comes after nearly a decade of advocacy by NCL and other consumer organizations to put an end to such outrageous fees.

While the end of change fees at the Big Three airlines is a victory for consumers, the airlines continue to collect billions of dollars in add-on fees for services such as baggage, seat reservations, and early boarding. In addition, low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier and smaller airlines like JetBlue, Hawaiian, and Alaska continue to charge exorbitant change fees.

The following statement is attributable to National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg:

Following United’s lead, Delta and American have taken the right step for their customers by ending change fees. Consumers often need to change a ticket reservation due to circumstances beyond their control. We don’t think they should be penalized to the tune of hundreds of dollars when life’s uncertainties interfere with travel plans.

While Delta has committed to ending change fees permanently and American has agreed to also end change fees on some international flights, more needs to be done to ensure that change fees are consigned to the dustbin of aviation industry history. The commitment to not charge change fees should be included in all three airlines’ contracts of carriage, the legally binding document that underpins each ticket. Without this action, we fear that the airlines will simply slide back into their old ways when the economy rebounds from the COVID-19 crisis or when a new CEO takes over.

Congress should also continue to push for legislation like the FAIR Fees Act, which will promote transparency and fairness in the air travel marketplace for all consumers, not just customers of the biggest airlines. NCL will continue to advocate for such common-sense consumer protection legislation.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

United ending domestic change fees is welcome news and a challenge to the industry

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization, applauds United Airlines for its decision to permanently remove its $200 domestic change fee. The move comes after more than a decade of complaints by travelers and advocacy by consumer organizations like NCL who have urged the industry, the Department of Transportation, and Congress to rein in excessive, anti-competitive fees.

The following statement is attributable to National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg:

“We thank United Airlines for this bold policy change. United’s announcement is a victory for basic fairness in the air travel marketplace. The flying public has been beleaguered by hefty fees for everyday acts like changing an airline ticket, checking baggage, or reserving a particular seat on the plane. This comes at a critical time, as millions struggle financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. United’s decision to end domestic change fees—and we take them at its word when it describes the change as permanent—is welcome news for airline passengers.

We also want to extend our thanks to fellow advocacy groups  and pro-consumer Members of Congress like Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rep. Steve Cohen who have fought for consumers in Congress by championing the FAIR Fees Act. This common-sense bill would require airlines’ add-on fees to be proportional to their actual cost.

United Airlines should be applauded for listening and responding to consumer advocates.  NCL has long argued that change fees are an unnecessary and unfair money grab by the airlines, as it costs practically nothing to change a traveler’s reservation when the unexpected happens. We sincerely hope that other members of the airline industry, particularly the other two legacy carriers—American and Delta—will follow suit. Failing to do so will put them at risk of losing even more passengers to companies like United and Southwest that do right by their customers. NCL will continue to push for common-sense legislation that requires all airlines to resist using their considerable market power to gouge consumers on fees and penalties.”

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Advocating for emergency air transport coverage

This spring, NCL sent a letter to the CEOs of Cigna, Aetna, and UnitedHealth Group, urging them to enter into productive negotiations with air medical service providers to ensure coverage of emergency air medical transportation. The ask came as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country, making air medical services even more essential, particularly in rural America.

“We are increasingly concerned about emergency air medical access during this crisis, and believe this life-saving care should be covered by every insurance plan,” said NCL Associate Director of Health Policy Nissa Shaffi.

“We are asking that insurers review the robustness of their coverage policies and immediately enter into network negotiations with air medical providers so that this critical service is covered, and patients are never left with a bill they cannot pay.”

NCL calls on insurers to cover air medical services during COVID-19 crisis

May 5, 2020

Contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC –The National Consumers League (NCL) last week sent a letter to the CEOs of Cigna, Aetna, and UnitedHealth Group, urging them to enter into productive negotiations with air medical service providers to ensure coverage of emergency air medical transportation. The ask comes as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the country, making air medical services even more essential, particularly in rural America.

In its letter, NCL notes that it is increasingly concerned about emergency air medical access during this crisis, and that it believes this life-saving care should be covered by every insurance plan. NCL asks that insurers review the robustness of their coverage policies and immediately to enter into network negotiations with air medical providers so that this critical service is covered, and patients are never left with a bill they cannot pay.

Text of the letter, signed by NCL Executive Director Sally Green is below:

Dear Mr. Wichmann, Mr. Cordani, and Ms. Lynch:

The National Consumers League has long advocated for health care as a right and argued for fair treatment for all stakeholders across the health care spectrum – patients, physicians, hospitals, health plans, and health care providers. Our mission is particularly acute during the global COVID-19 pandemic, when medical professionals are on the frontlines fighting for our health and safety, stricken patients need life-saving care, and nearly everyone is focused on their health and that of their loved ones.

In this vein, we are increasingly concerned about access to emergency medical care, especially in rural America, as the virus indiscriminately makes its way across the country. When minutes count, Americans who fall victim to COVID-19 must be assured that they can get to the nearest, most appropriate medical facility as quickly as possible. As COVID-19 strains hospital capacity and critical medical equipment like ventilators become attenuated, emergency air medical transports between facilities are often the only way for patients to get the care they need.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 85 million Americans can only reach a Level 1 or Level 2 trauma center within one hour if they are flown by an air medical helicopter. The effects of this access problem are staggering, and even more pronounced as we wrestle with the COVID-19 crisis. For many Americans, air medical ambulances are a vital link to timely, life-saving care.

We believe that such life-saving care should be covered by insurance. Patients pay their monthly premiums – and copays and deductibles – so they are not bankrupted should the worst befall them or their loved ones. Unfortunately, there have been far too many stories of people who were transported by air ambulance because it was ordered by a first responder or doctor, only to be told later by their insurance company that they would have to shoulder the bulk of the cost. This should not be the case anytime, but especially now as our nation wrestles with a pandemic.

This explains why we at the National Consumers League are writing to you for your input and thoughts. We believe that emergency air medical transportation should be included in every health coverage plan. We think that insurance companies and air medical providers must work together to bring these services in-network, so patients are not left footing a bill they can never hope to pay.  Adequate network agreements are imperative so that patients are not told – after the fact – that they were transported by an air ambulance that was not in-network. When an emergency happens, or worse yet, a pandemic strikes, patients are not choosing whether to take an air ambulance, let alone choosing a particular provider.  Similarly, coverage denials based on “medical necessity” should be the exception, not the rule, in light of the fact that patients are not a part of the decision-making process.

We ask that your companies immediately take a comprehensive look at your coverage policies for air medical services and the robustness of your provider networks. We urge you and the air ambulance community to enter into network negotiations, take patients out of the middle, find a middle ground on reimbursement that fairly compensates both sides, and ensure rural communities have access to air ambulance transports. Refusing to fairly negotiate is simply not an option in light of the current crisis. Entering into productive negotiations immediately will ensure that patients across the country have access to the medical care they need and that they are simultaneously protected from balance bills.

Thank you for your attention to our concerns.

Sincerely,

Sally Greenberg
Executive Director
National Consumers League

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneering consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

National Consumers League statement on lack of airline passenger protections in COVID-19 relief bill

March 26, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC–The National Consumers League, America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization, today called the Senate’s failure to include consumer protections for airline passengers in the COVID-19 relief bill a missed opportunity to protect the flying public. The bill, which passed the Senate on a 96-0 vote and appears headed toward passage in the House of Representatives, does not contain the passenger protections, supported by consumer groups, that were in Speaker Pelosi’s proposed bill.

The following statement is attributable to Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the National Consumers League:

“Airlines are canceling flights by the hundreds, leaving consumers who have spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on planned vacations and other travel high and dry. We are seeing disturbing reports that those customers, whose flights were canceled through no fault of their own, are being given the run-around by the airlines when they try to get a refund. A one-year flight voucher is of no use to consumers who don’t know when the current COVID-19 outbreak will subside.

In spite of this, the Senate approved a COVID-19 relief that did not require even the most basic of passenger protections of the airlines. While we applaud Congress for putting checks into the hands of the most vulnerable consumers and protecting the livelihood of millions of airline workers, it should have done more to protect the passengers who are the lifeblood of the industry. It is likely that this will not be the last time that the airlines come to Congress asking for a taxpayer bailout due to the COVID-19 outbreak. NCL will continue to press our elected representatives to ensure that consumers’ needs are not left unaddressed in the next relief bill.”

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneering consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.