Reducing the mountain of waste on airplanes

On a flight to Idaho earlier this week, I brought my own coffee mug. My flight attendant was unexpectedly enthusiastic: “Anything that will help save the planet,” she said. I do not find this to be the case at Starbucks, where baristas insist on giving me a new plastic cup when I’m getting my iced tea, or at the Nespresso counter at Bloomingdales, which recently refused to serve me a coffee in my own cup. Reducing our personal footprint should be a big issue for all of us as we see the rapid pace of climate change and what it is doing to our beloved planet.  

At home, I can compost food scraps, choose to take public transportation, minimize food waste, and drive a hybrid car.  But it’s tough to do your part to conserve, reduce, reuse, and recycle and try to “save the planet,” as an airline passenger.  The New York Times reports that the average air passenger generates three pounds of waste in the form of plastic cups, the headphones, food left on plates, wrapping for snacks, and plastic cutlerymultiply that times 4 billion passengers a year, and it really adds up! 

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg opted to sail to New York from Europe to avoid being part of the problem: emissions from airplanes.  

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group representing the airlines, estimated that planes generated 6.7 million tons of cabin waste last year. Another group that studied the waste found that it broke down as 33 percent food waste, 28 percent cardboard and paper, and 12 percent plastic.   

So, what are the airlines doing, and how can consumers be part of the solution? Well, airlines are under pressure to conserve precisely because consumers are demanding they do so, as the New York Times article reported.  Air France said it would eliminate 210 million singleuse plastic items like cups and coffee stirrers. Qantas has removed individually packaged servings of milk and Vegemite, and now serves meals in containers made from sugar cane, and utensils made from crop starch. Some United Airlines flights use “fully compostable or recyclable service ware.”  

Consumers can inquire about recycling products and demand changes in rigid rules on tossing out untouched food and drink, in place supposedly to protect agriculture. The trade group IATA estimates that these untouched items make up 20 percent of total airline waste. As reported by the New York Times, companies employed to help reduce airline waste are making dishes from pressed wheat bran and “sporks” from coconut palm wood. 

Asking the airlines what they are doing to reduce waste is a good start. Let’s press the airlines for answers andwhile we are it: what about hybrid or electric engines on planes? That is a topic we can explore another day. 

NCL: Cars need to come with data deletion buttons to enhance consumer privacy protections

October 3, 2019

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 worker and consumer advocacy organization, today called on Congress to take steps to rein in car manufacturers’ data collection practices and ensure that consumers have a mechanism to easily delete personal information collected about them by their vehicles.

Thanks to a proliferation of sensors, cellular connectivity and powerful in-car infotainment systems, modern cars can reportedly generate 25 gigabytes every hour and 4,000 gigabytes of data per day. In its new white paper, the consumer group examined the vast scope of personal information being collected about drivers by automobile companies to power a vast data engine that could be worth $750 billion by 2030.

“Every time a consumer gets in a car — whether it’s a vehicle she owns, rents, or rides in – huge amounts of personal data get shared with car companies with practically no oversight or consumer protections,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “We want to shine a light on car companies’ data practices and encourage Congress to create common-sense rules of road for this growing marketplace.”

The NCL white paper examines several existing laws and proposed bills to offer a framework to legislators for steps they can take to better protect the privacy and data security of the driving public. In particular, NCL is urging Congress to mandate that car manufacturers include an easy-to-use data deletion functionality in all new cars to help consumers take control over their in-car data.

“Consumers just want to get from point A to point B safely,” said Greenberg. “While the data generated by our cars can help fuel innovation in the auto industry, that shouldn’t come at the expense of our privacy. Consumers are looking to Congress to take the lead and ensure that car company’s data collection practices have some sensible guardrails.”

Read NCL’s new white paper here. (pdf)

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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.

DOT inaction leaves kids at risk, NCL tells Congress

September 26, 2019

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, today called on the House Aviation Subcommittee to compel the Department of Transportation (DOT) to follow through on its Congressionally-mandated passenger protection rulemakings.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently warned that in-flight sexual assaults have increased by 66 percent and that children as young as 8 have been victims of such crimes in the air. New data uncovered by Consumer Reports found that children as young as two years old and kids who have autism or who suffer from seizures have been separated from their parents on airplanes. Airlines have pressured parents to pay expensive seat reservation fees or buy priority board passes so that they can be sure to sit with their small children. Incredibly, the DOT earlier this year decided that creating a consumer education website would be sufficient to fulfill Congress’ intent that it act to ensure that families can sit with their young children.

“How many children will have to be assaulted on aircraft before the DOT acts?” asked John Breyault, NCL’s vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud at a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing today. “The DOT’s inaction on this issue has put children at greater risk. Congress should demand answers from the DOT on the process it used to determine that it should do nothing substantive on this important children’s safety issue and mandate that the agency follow through on Congress’ clear intent.”

Read Breyault’s full testimony here.

The consumer group also highlighted the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) inaction on setting minimum seat size standards despite a looming deadline to do so. The FAA has actively. The FAA is required to issue regulations no later than October 2019, yet consumer groups have seen no indication that the agency is prepared to initiate such a rulemaking. Instead, the FAA has actively resisted judicial efforts by consumer advocates pressing it to take action on the important safety issue.

“Congress must not allow the FAA to simply adopt whatever inhumane seat size standard the airline industry favors,” said Breyault.

Breyault also testified about the impact of a lack of action by the DOT on Congressional mandates related to fee refunds, denied boarding (“bumping”), and the availability of fare, fee, and schedule data.

“The DOT’s actions and inactions on important rulemakings paint a picture of an agency that places consumer protection and consumer safety at the bottom of its list of priorities,” said Breyault. “It is imperative that Congress act to ensure that its mandates are not unduly delayed, or worse, ignored completely.”

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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.

Consumer group calling on Congress to pass Hot Cars Act on Heat Stroke Prevention Day, July 31

July 31, 2019

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

Washington, DC—Washington, DC—Just days after the tragic deaths of one-year-old twins who were accidentally left behind by a parent in a car in the Bronx over the weekend, advocates pointing to today’s observance of Heat Stroke Prevention Day to call attention to a bill in Congress that would mandate new cars come with technology to prevent such tragedies.

The Hot Car Act would require that all new cars come equipped with an alarm system that reminds drivers to check the car after exiting. The bill calls for “a distinct auditory and visual alert to notify individuals inside and outside of the vehicle of the presence of an occupant.” This alarm will only occur when the vehicle senses a physical presence in the back seat.

Heatstroke is the leading cause of deaths in vehicles (excluding crashes) for children 14 years old and younger, according to Consumer Reports. Although some may believe that hot car tragedies could never happen to them, more than 900 children have died in hot cars since 1990, and 17 fatalities have been recorded in 2019 alone, according to safety advocacy group KidsAndCars.org.

“This lifesaving technology is already available, so why wouldn’t we expedite its implementation and allow children and their families to benefit from it?” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “Just as we have overcome other dangers in cars–kids dying in trunks, backover accidents, deadly electric car windows–the auto industry now has the technology available to prevent these tragedies. Kids shouldn’t pay with their lives when we can readily fix the problem. The auto industry can do something about this and should.”

The Hot Cars Act alert system follows in the tradition of other essential vehicle alarm systems that have become commonplace for consumers, such as chimes that remind drivers to use a seat belt, indicate that headlights have been left on, or doors have been left ajar.

The alarm system also has relevance beyond the summer months. Sensors and alarms in new cars will also prevent children from being left unattended in dangerously cold temperatures. The proposed technology would also alert pet-owners if their furry friend is about to be left behind.

These hot car deaths have happened for many years to many doting, devoted, and loving parents. Human beings make mistakes, but we now have the technology that can prevent these mistakes and help protect children, so let’s use it,” said Greenberg.

The Senate introduced its version of the bill in May, which was sponsored by Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA). 

The National Consumers League once again commends Representatives Tim Ryan (D-OH), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Peter King(R-NY) for their continued leadership on this issue and urge members of Congress to support this important children’s protection legislation.

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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.

DOT green lights more concentration, less competition in American-Qantas alliance

July 24, 2019

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 disappointed in the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) decision to approve a grant of antitrust immunity to a new international alliance between American Airlines and Qantas Airways. The following statement is attributable to Sally Greenberg, NCL executive director:  

“In 2016, the Obama DOT found that an American-Qantas tie-up would ‘reduce competition and consumer choice.’ Less than three years later, the Trump DOT has decided that the American-Qantas alliance will be ‘procompetitive’ and ‘likely to generate substantial benefits for the traveling public’ in the U.S.-Australia market. We are at a loss to understand how allowing the Big Three airline alliances to control 86 percent of the U.S.-Australia market will generate substantial benefits for flyers. This decision is yet more evidence that the Trump DOT is intent on putting the interests of big airlines ahead of the interests of the flying public. The woeful absence of competition in the airline industry today has led to higher prices, poor service, and nowhere for the flying public to go. This decision only adds insult to injury for consumers.”

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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.

NCL applauds Ryan, Schakowsky, and King for House introduction of Hot Cars Act (HR 3593)

July 8, 2019

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, the nation’s pioneering consumer advocacy organization, applauds Representatives Tim Ryan (D-OH), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Peter King (R-NY) for reintroducing the Hot Cars Act (H.R. 3593) on July 1. By mandating that all new cars come equipped with technology that detects and alerts the presence of a child left in a vehicle, the Hot Cars Act would help stop dozens of tragic and preventable child deaths annually.

The Hot Car Act would require that all new cars come equipped with an alarm system that reminds drivers to check the car after exiting. The bill calls for “a distinct auditory and visual alert to notify individuals inside and outside of the vehicle of the presence of an occupant.” This alarm will only occur when the vehicle senses a physical presence in the back seat.

Heatstroke is the leading cause of deaths in vehicles (excluding crashes) for children 14 years old and younger, according to Consumer Reports. Although some may believe that hot car tragedies could never happen to them, more than 900 children have died in hot cars since 1990, and 17 fatalities have been recorded in 2019 alone, according to safety advocacy group KidsAndCars.org.

“This lifesaving technology is already available, so why wouldn’t we expedite its implementation and allow children and their families to benefit from it?” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg.

The Hot Cars Act alert system follows in the tradition of other essential vehicle alarm systems that have become commonplace for consumers, such as chimes that remind drivers to use a seat belt, indicate that headlights have been left on, or doors have been left ajar.

The alarm system also has relevance beyond the summer months. Sensors and alarms in new cars will also prevent children from being left unattended in dangerously cold temperatures. The proposed technology would also alert pet-owners if their furry friend is about to be left behind.

The Senate introduced its version of the bill in May, which was sponsored by Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA). 

The National Consumers League once again commends Representatives Tim Ryan (D-OH), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Peter King(R-NY) for their continued leadership on this issue and urge members of Congress to support this important children’s protection legislation.

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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.

‘Innovation’ = airline speak for finding new ways to gouge consumers

Brian YoungIf you have been listening to the airline industry, you may think that now is one of the best times to fly. According to its lobbyists, fares are down, and the airlines are working overtime to provide their customers with new and innovative products. However, in reality, if you have spent any time shopping around for a ticket, you are probably intimately aware that all of this “innovation” serves one purpose: to stifle what little competition remains in the airline marketplace and to implement new and creative ways to gouge consumers.

The Government Accountability Office, along with several independent researchers, have found that the proliferation of airline fees have allowed airlines to deceptively appear to be lowering fares while, in fact, they are quietly raising the real cost of travel. This nickel and diming allows airlines to rake in revenue–to the tune of $57 billion dollars a year–in so-called “ancillary fees,” in turn allowing the airlines to bring in record profits. In 2018, the industry is estimated to see a $38.4 billion profit margin.

Airline fees also serve another disturbing purpose: they stifle competition and prevent the free market from functioning properly by undermining the ability of consumers to comparison shop. Most of us are aware of the different fees airlines are now charging for carry-on bags, change fees, and even necessities like water. These fees can greatly complicate the comparison shopping process. The fee Delta charges for carry-on bags could be very different than the fee United charges; in this environment, expecting consumers to calculate the real costs based on fees and add-ons in order to compare real prices is absurd.

Airlines are now flexing their creative muscles to develop new fees that vary depending on the day of the week! Lufthansa, for instance, now has a fee that’s based on fluctuating ticket prices, exchange rates, “market-specific conditions,” and special offers. Similarly, Virgin Atlantic has a fare of $93 for one of its routes, but the airline tacks on carrier-imposed surcharges of $320 and government taxes of $225, which increase the ultimate price of the ticket more than 5-fold.

Unsurprisingly the ever-growing list of varying fees has made it difficult for consumers to comparison shop. Staying updated on the new fees airlines have tacked on can become a full-time job. While some online travel agents and meta-search sites do their best to inform users of the new list of fees, (Google Flights for instance, now allows you to search for flights that include carry-on bag fees in the price of the ticket and will soon add an option to search for flight prices that include checked bags) by and large, the burden of determining what fees one is liable for is carried by the consumer.

In addition to just making comparison shopping complicated, many airlines such as Delta and Southwest also take another approach: prohibiting websites from displaying their fares alongside competitors’ completely. Southwest Airlines has long taken this approach, forcing consumers to go directly to its website to determine the price of a flight.

The industry’s refusal to share fare and schedule data has had a measurable detrimental impact on airline passengers. One industry study found that this practice could cost passengers upwards of $6 billion dollars per year (or $30 per ticket). Even more concerningly, the same study found that if this practice continues, more than 40 million Americans could refrain from flying due to sticker shock.

Fortunately, in 2016 Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx began investigating whether consumers are harmed when airlines restrict their schedule and fare information. However, once the Trump Administration took over the DOT (the relevant cop on the beat for this type of deceptive practice), the agency suspended the investigation, saying that forcing airlines to allow comparison shopping was not needed.

As this administration has signaled a lack of interest in transparent markets, Congress must now act to ensure that competition can once again thrive in the air travel marketplace. At the National Consumers League, we have long believed that an informed consumer is an empowered consumer and that in order for markets to function properly, consumers must be able to comparison shop. If airlines hide behind wildly fluctuating fees and conceal their fare and schedule information from consumers and online travel sites, consumers cannot make informed purchases. It is for this reason than NCL will continue to advocate for transparency in the airline marketplace, both in our advocacy to do away with arbitrary fees, as well as in our work to make sure that passengers can continue to shop around for the best price.

Automobile industry ignoring safety packages – National Consumers League

NCL Public Policy Intern Melissa Cuddington contributed to this post.

In November 22, 2004, Automotive News, the publication that covers the auto industry, ran one of my favorite editorials of all time:

“All safety related devices should become standard equipment on all vehicles. No choice. It’s not an economic decision; it’s a moral decision. When the choice becomes profit vs. lives, the decision should be simple.”

This issue is more pertinent now than ever. The National Consumers League strongly supports enhanced auto safety technologies and, like the quote above says, it’s a moral decision to make safety technologies standard equipment. Case in point: driver-assist technology, has been available for about a decade in the United States. It includes automatic breaking, lane-changing aids, and cruise control, each of which has made driving safer.

One would think that these driver-assist programs would be included in “standard safety packages,” but they are not. As such, it’s sad to read that the auto industry is doing a poor job marketing and selling these systems. According to the Wall Street Journal, salespeople are apparently not being properly trained to discuss the benefits of these safety technologies. In a recent survey done by the MIT AgeLab, only six out of 17 car sellers were able to explain the safety technologies. In fact, many car salespeople say they don’t have the knowledge or the time to explain these packages. Car sellers are not incentivized to explain these technologies because they drive up the cost of the car and take “excessive” time in the showroom. What a loss! Thirty percent of traffic accidents and fatalities could be avoided if the majority of cars had these standard safety packages, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

This lack of enthusiasm for selling the safety that exists today is ironic. Automobile manufacturers are trying to rush through Congress a bill that gives nearly carte blanche for the deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs) with little regulation. Safety is one of the top reasons AVs are being touted by the auto industry as a means for greatly reducing auto injuries. But we are skeptical; just look how industry gives short shrift to the safety devices we have access to now!

There are notable exceptions. NCL applauds carmakers Honda Motor Co., Subaru Corporation, and Toyota Motor Corporation for their plans to include safety packages in their standard car models, such as the 2019 Subaru Ascent and the 2018 Honda Accord. These companies have also made a concerted effort to keep prices down for models featuring the safety technology. We’d like to see them and their competitors expand these features to their whole fleet.

We urge the automobile industry take a second look at the cost of these driver-assist packages that aren’t standard equipment, to train their sales force to sell these lifesaving packages, and—most importantly—to start to include these safety packages in standard car models. Consumers shouldn’t have to choose between affordability and safety. Like Automotive News said nearly 15 years ago, “All safety-related devices should become standard equipment on all vehicles.”