Air travel still bumpy, but DOT offers relief

Posted Jan. 24, 2010, at 11:10 p.m.

Anyone who has ever arrived at an airport two hours early, endured a lengthy wait on a runway, then had a connection canceled by weather may take heart at some recent moves by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

DOT is listening to consumers’ complaints about being trapped on tarmacs for hours on end and other practices by the airline industry. Those complaints are tabulated and used in the monthly ratings of airline service, which have been widely publicized.

The department grabbed headlines last month when it announced it would require airlines to have contingency plans once a passenger aircraft has been sitting on a tarmac for three hours.

Specifically, airlines must give passengers the option of returning to the terminal after a three-hour wait. They must offer them food, water, access to restrooms and medical treatment, if needed, while passengers are stuck. The airlines must also get word of delays onto their Web sites and post information about ways to make formal complaints.

The Seattle Times applauded DOT’s action in a Christmas Day editorial, saying, “Flying will improve over time because passengers will be treated humanely.” Meanwhile, passengers have plenty of places to sound off. One is FlyersRights.org, which bills itself as “the largest non-profit airline consumer organization.” That group is pushing for Congress to pass a comprehensive Passenger Bill of Rights.

Getting passenger protections into law has been a long time coming. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, signed on as a co-sponsor, with Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, of such legislation three years ago. In a news release last month, Snowe commended DOT for its action, while saying “we can do more” by passing a full Passen-ger Bill of Rights.

Meanwhile, travelers can expect enough overbookings, resulting delays, lost luggage and bewildering rates to keep regulators busy.

For example, DOT has used its enforcement powers to make examples of airlines found to have used misleading advertising. The agency hit Continental Airlines with a $75,000 fine last August for the wording of its online ads.

In the “special fares” section of its Web site, Continental talked about Canadian destinations for rates “starting at $93 one way.” While such a fare was available only in a round-trip ticket, the ad did not specify that stipulation in a “clear and conspicuous” manner. In settling the complaint, Continental noted that it did not intend to mislead anyone and that it had taken action to see that it won’t happen again.

In the end, it is likely this kind of spotlight — rather than the harsh glare of TV lights at congressional hearings —may bring about changes that are meaningful to the flying public. DOT has just launched a Web site aimed at making information more accessible and filing a complaint easier. To make a complaint or find useful tips about air travel, visit http://airconsumer.dot.gov (this site does not start with the usual “www”).

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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