NCL applauds Congress’s passage of aviation consumer protection improvements

May 16, 2024

Media contact: National Consumers League – Melody Merin, melodym@nclnet.org, 202-207-2831

Washington, DC – Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through 2028, sending it to the president. The legislation includes a number of wins for the millions of consumers who travel by air every year: airline vouchers cannot expire in less than five years, caregivers can sit with their minor children without paying an extra fee, and passengers will automatically receive a refund if their flight is cancelled.

The measure also strengthens the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) ability to hold air carriers accountable when they break the law by tripling the maximum civil penalty the Department may impose and creating an assistant secretary position for aviation consumer protection.

“The National Consumers League is grateful to the negotiators of this bill for working to improve the flying experience,” said NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud John Breyault. “Without support from Senator Cantwell, Senator Cruz, Representative Graves, Representative Larsen, and their diligent staff, these important new consumer protections would not have made it to President Biden’s desk.

“We look forward to the president signing the bill into law and a robust enforcement regime from DOT. Particularly, we expect the FAA to act on its mandate from Congress to establish minimum seat sizes on airplanes—a directive Congress has given the agency twice now.”

Unfortunately, Congress missed a significant opportunity to enact structural change in how airlines are regulated. The airline industry still enjoys extraordinary privileges and remains protected from Federal Trade Commission and state government oversight. A tax break for add-on fees remains in place, encouraging air carriers to generate revenue from added charges instead of the base fare. And a provision that would have established bare-bones safeguards around the devaluation of frequent flyer rewards was stripped from the bill.

While there is still work to be done, the flying public undoubtedly secured important wins in this reauthorization. NCL is appreciative of the allies to consumers who championed our priorities on the Hill and we will continue to advocate for passengers as the legislation is implemented in the coming years.

Further reading:

  • Consumer advocates support federal review of air industry’s data collection practices
  • Full list of consumer and public interest advocates’ priorities for the FAA reauthorization
  • Consumer groups call for a moratorium on smaller airplane seats pending FAA safety review

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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 nclnet.org.

NCL urges Congress to improve air travel as FAA reauthorization progresses

February 15, 2024

Media contact: National Consumers League – Melody Merin, melodym@nclnet.org, 202-207-2831

Washington, DC – Last week, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee advanced the five-year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The legislation does contain some victories for consumers, but it does not contain the deep reforms of an uncompetitive industry that are sorely needed.

“Passengers are crying out to Congress to implement real reforms that make flying less miserable,” said NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud John Breyault. “The Senate Commerce Committee could have used its twice-a-decade opportunity to swing for the fences on behalf of the flying public. Unfortunately, they settled for a bunt single.”

NCL, in coalition with other consumer and passenger rights organizations, has called for stronger safeguards to be included in the FAA reauthorization bill for years. Last February, NCL and eight other advocacy groups sent a letter to House and Senate Commerce Committee leaders urging support for a range of critical reforms to the airline industry. Key among those demands was a change to allow state attorneys general to enforce consumer protection laws against airlines, something that federal law currently prohibits them from doing. Thirty-seven bipartisan state attorneys general have also supported this reform, which both the House of Representatives and the Senate have so far ignored in their bills.

“Congress is running out of time to get this right,” said Breyault. “We strongly urge members of the Senate to make protecting the flying public a bigger priority as this bill moves to a floor vote.”

Several of the passenger rights coalition’s other priorities were included in the bill reported out of the Senate Commerce Committee. These reforms include a requirement that children be seated with their family and caregivers without additional fees, a requirement that air travel vouchers not expire before five years, standards for refunds in the event of a delay or cancellation, minimum customer service call center requirements, and creating an assistant Secretary of Aviation Consumer Protection.

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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 nclnet.org.

This summer, I dipped my toe into electric vehicle land: It was hit or miss

Sally Greenberg

By Sally Greenberg, Chief Executive Officer

This summer I bought a new used 2021 Prius Prime. I wanted to dip my toe into the world of electric vehicles and the Prime provided that opportunity. I call my purchase a “new used” because compared to my 2007 Prius, my Prime feels spanking new. I wanted a Prime because unlike a traditional Prius, it provides an electric charge for up to 25 miles; after the electric is used up, the car reverts to using fuel, albeit a very fuel efficient 62 mpg. My friend Sarah owns one and has been crowing since she bought it about filling up her tank a mere 4 times a year because that 25-mph charge takes her all over town and home in time to recharge. So, she uses no gas. That’s what I wanted!

But I do more than drive around town. I bought the Prime anticipating a road trip at summer’s end to the Maritimes in Canada where I would work remotely and be a tourist on weekends. I wanted my new car to get maximum fuel efficiency for the 4,000-mile trip so I pledged to charge the Prius whenever I could. I wasn’t quite sure how it would work, so part of my plan was to test out how average consumers with electric vehicles were faring.  I was committed to trying, even if it only gave me 25 miles on the electric charge.

What I discovered is that finding reliable electric charging stations is hit or miss. The Prime provides one advantage: it comes equipped with a charging cable that can be plugged into any 120-volt outlet. Granted, the 120-v plug in option takes over 5 hours for a full charge, but it’s better than no charge at all.

The problem is that when you’re on a car trip and staying in roadside hotels, finding a place to plug in a car even at a standard outlet isn’t easy. When you can find one, it takes longer but has the advantage of being free.

So, my adventure began. I picked up my Prius Prime on August 18 from a dealer outside of Philadelphia and headed north, first stop Norwalk CT. I had a hotel booked, but alas, when I arrived, I couldn’t find a charger at the hotel. I tried using the Apps but which ones to use? Flo? Charge Point? Are they the same company? It was hard to tell and plus, they tell you there’s a station, but the chargers might not be working at that station. So, I figured I would rely on the chain hotels I stayed at along the route and tried to stay in places which claimed to have chargers.

On to the next stop, Keene, NH. My Holiday Inn Express had no charging stations, so I went across the street to Hampton Inn, where I had to pay for the charge, $2.00 for a two-hour session, and I wasn’t told ahead of time what the cost was. Next stop was Rockland, ME. I googled and found a charging station but only at the public library. Again, if I’m like most consumers, I want to know what I’m being asked to pay before I decide to pay it. Again, no such luck here; you flash your credit card on the display at the charging station and hope it won’t break the bank; you get a green light and plug in your car. Thankfully, again it cost me only $1.50 to $2 for the full charge.  But I had to leave the car for 2 hours and go back to my hotel to kill time. It’s safe enough because you lock up and the charging port doesn’t provide any opportunity for theft or vandalism. Advanced planning would have allowed me to see the wonderful Farnsworth Museum in Rockland while my car was charging.  Another lesson learned!

The next overnight was Bangor, ME. The hotel staff pointed to the gas station next door; a guy sitting in a Kia was charging his SUV and I thought, great! Alas, neither of the charging ports fit my Prime. That was a surprise.  I went away dejected and googled for another possibility. I drove ten minutes to the public library downtown, which I read had received many thousands in infrastructure funding to put up charging stations. The display where you put your card was unresponsive. I couldn’t pay and couldn’t get the ports working. I called the phone number on the charging station and clueless operator picked up and thanked me for the report but said she couldn’t help me. I called Bangor city hall, and no one answered, so I left a message and my phone number – it was a Monday morning. No one ever called back. So I got no charge in Bangor.

Next, on to St. John, Canada. We were hoping the Canadians had figured it all out and the hotel would have the promised charging stations – they were there but neither was working. So, no charging in St. John.

Our next stop was Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. The town is charming, and we were excited that the hotel advertised multiple charging stations; there were two and once again, neither was working. We got a maintenance guy to reset the charger and plugged in. Yes! A two-hour charge and for free!

The next evening though, we couldn’t get access to the charger because a van parked at the only working charging station from 6 pm till late the next morning and we had to hit the road. A woman in a Tesla next to me looked perturbed – she and her young daughter had rented a Tesla and had no access to a charger either. She reassured me she had another 30 kilometers of charge. But what if she didn’t have any charge to spare?  She’d have been SOL, as the saying goes.

Onto Sydney, Cape Breton, where the hotel had no charging stations, but they let us use a 120-v outlet in the parking lot and we happily charged up overnight for free.

Making our way around Nova Scotia, we landed in the lovely capital Halifax and our hotel advertised a free charging station. It worked for a change, but it wasn’t free. In fact, I made the mistake of plugging my car in overnight and waking up to a $12 charge on my credit card, even though the charge likely only took 2 hours. Again, I was never told about cost before plugging in. Another lesson learned! Don’t leave the car plugged in overnight when you don’t know the cost.

On the return to the US, we stopped again in St John for the night, at a different hotel which advertised charging stations. The stations were there, but both were out of order. A phone call to the customer service yielded no results. They took the report but couldn’t fix the problem. Again, no charge.

As the trip continued, I feel like I got smarter. Ask at the hotel for charging stations either on the property or in town. I learned to plan my day around charging – either the night before or in the morning, when I had things to do before hitting the road. If the hotel had a working station, great, I could get a fast charge. If not, find an outlet and go for the 5-hour charge. Move the car as soon as it is charged up. Working my way back to Washington DC, I used my newfound knowledge to find charging stations where I could. Several nights I just couldn’t find a way to charge.  Finally, I reached home and the relief of instant charging.

Two weeks later, I drove to see my son Durham, NC. Oh good, I thought, a town known for being part of the “Research Triangle” will be filled with techie EV owners and early adapters. I was wrong. The charging station in one trendy part of Durham was available but the chargers didn’t work for the Prime. We drove to a nearby garage where the guys said, “Sure, no problem, use our EV charger. Not sure it is working though.”  And it wasn’t. The hose was badly frayed and needed replacing. We drove all over town looking for a plain old 120 outlet outside. No luck, so no charge in Durham. So, my endless search for chargers on the east coast comes to a close.

Friends are enjoying my saga. Sally, they say, you’re only get 25 electric miles a day! I don’t care. I’m dedicated to reducing my carbon footprint and plus, it’s fun to drive around knowing you’re using no gas. That said, I would love to have a full EV, but I like to take road trips and I can’t trust the EV infrastructure and risk a car running out of juice. In fact, I don’t know exactly what happens if you do run out of charge.

I know that Tesla owners have better access and reliable charging stations, and for good reason.  According to JD Power, Tesla is the longest-running pure electric brand with about 114,000 vehicles delivered in the first quarter of 2022. Teslas also has two SUVs and two sedans, with a wide range of pricing points and sizes, The Model 3, Model Y, Model S, and Model X are apparently outselling many established gasoline-powered cars.[1]   But I can’t use a Tesla charger on my Prime because the nozzle doesn’t fit.

Plus, I personally refuse to buy anything from Elon Musk.

But other manufacturers are selling EVs, and I don’t know what drivers are doing for reliable charging. Maybe not taking road trips. Kia is second behind Tesla, with EV sales at 8,450 vehicles delivered in the first quarter of 2022.  Ford is third, with slightly over 7,400 electric vehicles delivered in the United States in the first quarter. They include the Ford Mustang Mach-E and the new electric Ford Lightning pickup has received 200,000 Lightning orders.

Hyundai is fourth, with 7,000 electric vehicles in the first quarter of 2022.

Some final thoughts on charging electric vehicles. Neither America nor Canada appears to be ready for prime time.  (Pun intended!) I was lucky to have a mostly gas vehicle. If I had relied on charging stations, I’d have been in trouble. As my tale of woe notes, they often aren’t working, don’t exist, are occupied, cost money but don’t tell you ahead of time how much, or aren’t located conveniently. In addition, NCL works on combatting child labor around the world, and EV battery production from China often involves materials mined in Congo where children work long hours in mines exposed to toxic chemicals. We support bills like that of Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) to ban the importation of “goods, wares, articles, or merchandise containing metals or minerals, processed, wholly or in part, by child labor or forced labor in the DRC.”

My experience prompted these questions.

  • despite the millions provided to US municipalities, why are so many stations not functioning?
  • Why can’t hotel chains like Marriott, Holiday Inn, Hilton and IHG guarantee working charging stations?
  • Who is accountable? The charging station companies were paid a lot of taxpayer money to put up devices that often don’t work?
  • Why can’t municipalities ensure their chargers are working? As I said, I never got a call back after my complaint to the city of Bangor.

My experience also prompted some possible solutions:

  • Require charging station manufacturers to guarantee that their stations are working and if they are not, are serviced quickly. They know exactly when a station is offline and if they have accepted municipal funds to build the station, they must be held accountable to keep it up and running or pay fines to the town or city.
  • Incentivize through taxes or otherwise major hotel chains and ensure that they build charging stations, post accurate information on how many charging stations they have, whether they are working and for what type of vehicle and what the cost will be to customers.
  • Rate the apps that give you nearby charging stations for accuracy – sure, there might be a station nearby, but is it in working order? is it occupied? Will it work for your vehicle?

The bottom line is that consumers don’t want to drive around for hours looking for working charging stations. The emphasis on building electric vehicles is admirable, but if we don’t vastly improve access to working charging stations, no one will want to own an electric car.

*Update* Since my trip I have enjoyed charging my car at daily at home and do in fact enjoy driving an electric car around town for my daily commute and errands!

[1] https://www.jdpower.com/cars/shopping-guides/what-percent-of-us-car-sales-are-electric

Advocates call on DOT to mandate easier airfare cost comparison

January 25, 2023

Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org, 202-823-8442

WASHINGTON DC. – Yesterday, the National Consumers League (NCL) and a coalition of six consumer and passenger rights organizations filed comments with the Department of Transportation (DOT) in support of proposed regulations requiring the earlier disclosure of common airline ticket add-on fees. DOT’s proposed rules would require airlines and ticket agents to display fees associated with checked baggage, ticket changes and cancellations, and family seating on the first page of airfare search results. 

“It is extremely difficult and time-consuming for consumers to do accurate apple-to-apples comparisons when shopping for airline tickets,” said John Breyault, NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud. “DOT’s proposed rules would promote competition by making it harder for airlines and ticket agents to hide some of the most egregious add-on fees in the fine print at the end of the ticket-buying process.” 

“The airlines love to nickel-and-dime passengers with junk fees, and in far too many cases travelers are hit with sticker shock when they finally realize the true cost of flying,” said William J. McGee, Senior Fellow for Aviation & Travel at American Economic Liberties Project. “We urge the DOT to address transparency of fees, and to eliminate certain fees altogether. This applies especially to fees for families with young kids to sit together, an issue Congress directed the DOT to address in 2016.” 

“If airlines are going to continue to devise and impose all sorts of unreasonable fees, they must be required to reveal each fee when travelers first search for price and availability,” said Ruth Susswein, Consumer Action’s Director of Consumer Protection. 

“Airlines have come up with all sorts of extra fees over the years: baggage fees, change fees, seat selection fees and more. We believe airlines should be required to disclose these fees before someone begins the actual booking process, not at the end. And these fees should be disclosed up front in real time to ticket agents that provide fare information. This would encourage price competition and ultimately give consumers more transparency in pricing,” said Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog for Public Interest Research Group. 

To view the coalition’s full comments to DOT, click here. 

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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 https://nclnet.org.

National Consumers League urges Southwest Airlines to invest in consumer protection

December 27, 2022

Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org, 202-823-8442

WASHINGTON DC. – The poor performance of domestic airlines, namely Southwest Airlines, over the holiday season is yet another call to action for reform to the air travel industry. The National Consumers League (NCL) strongly urges Southwest Airlines to take all actions necessary to make both consumers and its employees whole, as well as to prevent similar incidents from reoccurring in the future. Additionally, the federal government should not delay in implementing the number of pending regulations that would strengthen consumer protections in air travel, including a proposed rule that would require refunds for stranded travelers. 

Air carriers should function to alleviate consumer and employee issues, not exacerbate them. Reports of passengers unable to contact Southwest Airlines representatives to rebook cancelled flights or find lost baggage are distressing and emblematic of longstanding issues within the industry. Moreover, complaints from airline employees of outdated operations systems further disrupting service also highlight the lack of action taken to mitigate the issues faced by both consumers and workers over the holidays. 

NCL urges Southwest Airlines to issue refunds to affected consumers without delay. Additionally, Southwest Airlines should invest significantly in improving customer service capacity and updating operations technology.

The travel meltdowns that are occurring this holiday season are another reminder that we must reform the governmental policies surrounding air travel. NCL is pleased that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is looking into Southwest Airlines’ performance, especially as it is the sole governmental agency with oversight of air carriers. 

The DOT should act quickly to promulgate regulations that require refunds to consumers in the event of a significant delay or cancellation, alongside other pending rules. Additionally, the DOT should implement recommendations from consumer advocates and state attorneys general, including a proposal to require airlines to provide travelers accommodations for meals and overnight lodging when necessary.

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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 https://nclnet.org.

Consumer groups call for moratorium on smaller airplane seats pending FAA safety review

November 2, 2022

Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Advocates caution that out-of-date emergency evacuation testing standards could put flyers at risk 

Washington D.C.— A coalition of six consumer advocacy organizations yesterday filed comments in response to a Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) inquiry regarding minimum passenger seat dimensions. The groups called for the FAA to prohibit airlines from installing smaller seats in commercial jets while the agency reviews and updates its decades-old emergency evacuation testing standards.

“Airlines have a profit incentive to cram more people on their planes,” said Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the National Consumers League, which organized the letter. “This trend has created a dangerous environment that could impede safe evacuation in the event of an emergency. The FAA has looked the other way for decades as the airlines have increasingly prioritized their bottom lines over passenger safety.”

U.S. law requires air carriers to ensure that they can evacuate their aircraft in 90 seconds or less. In an alarming number of real-world emergencies in recent years, evacuations took between two and five minutes, even though every airline has certified that their planes comply with federal standards. Despite this, the FAA continues to rely on emergency evacuation testing standards that reflect what flying was like in the 1990’s, not the environment that passengers encounter today.

To address the insecurity of current flying conditions, the consumer groups called on the FAA to take immediate action, including:

  • Instituting a moratorium on the further shrinking of passenger seats. Airlines have reduced the sizes of seats to record lows, having shaved off several inches from when the federal government last updated U.S. evacuation standards.
  • Updating federal evacuation standards to reflect the modern cabin environment, accounting for smaller seat sizes, increased baggage around the cabin, and the proliferation of personal electronic devices.
  • If necessary, provisionally requiring that airline seats be no smaller than 32 inches in pitch (commonly referred to as legroom) and 20 inches in width. These dimensions would ensure that seat sizes are not smaller than the typical minimum dimensions that airlines utilized in the early 1990s.

“In addition to hampering evacuation speeds, it’s important to consider how diminished seat sizes impact traveler health, even when there is not an emergency,” said John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud at NCL. “Cramped airline seating increases the risk that passengers will experience deep vein thrombosis and pressure sores. Current seat sizes make flying more dangerous and often embarrassing for many passengers, particularly those with disabilities or those who are too large to safely fit into the seats.”

In addition to NCL, the letter was signed by the American Economic Liberties Project, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Ed Perkins on Travel, and U.S. PIRG.

To read the coalition’s full comments to the FAA, click here.

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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 https://nclnet.org.

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.