Attorneys general push for tougher airline ticket refund rules

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Travelers wait to go through security check point at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. Nam Y. Huh/AP

Attorneys general push for tougher airline ticket refund rules

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A bipartisan group of 34 state attorneys general has co-signed a letter to the Department of Transportation sounding off on a proposed administrative rule on “Airline Ticket Refunds and Consumer Protections.” A supermajority of the states’ top lawyers thought it didn’t go nearly far enough.

The AGs said in their mid-December missive acknowledged they “appreciate the Department’s work to address the problem of flight cancellations and significant delays.” The federal “proposal contains some positive measures,” they added.

But the AGs also think the Department of Transportation proposal “should be strengthened.”

CONGRESS AND THE FAA MUST DO THESE THINGS TO IMPROVE AIR TRAVEL

One thing that they urged the DOT to change “in parallel with this rulemaking” is to create a “new framework” that would make both the agency and the airlines more responsive to concerns of attorneys general.

“Doing so would benefit consumers and would address consumer protection failings in this industry,” the letter explains.

They also urged the DOT to “implement further measures to crack down on flight cancellations and delays. For instance, they urge the agency to “require airlines to advertise and sell only flights that they have adequate personnel to fly and support, and perform regular audits of airlines to ensure compliance and impose fines on airlines that do not comply.”

Other measures that they urge include more and steeper fines and threats of fines for “cancellations and extended delays that are not weather-related or otherwise unavoidable.” They also want to force airlines to cough up “partial refunds” for cancellations “that results in a rescheduled flight which the passenger accepts but that is later, longer, or otherwise less valuable than the originally purchased flight.” And they’re eager to stop the airlines from “canceling flights while upselling consumers more expensive alternative flights to the same destinations.”

Gary Leff, author of the influential travel website View from the Wing, is not convinced.

“State Attorneys General, like DOT, are citing past bad actors among some airlines — who have cleaned up their act, without additional rulemaking — as justification for a new rule,” Leff told the Washington Examiner. “In doing so they’re asking for DOT to give them priority over others who bring issues to the Department’s attention, but they offer no reason why they’d be in a position to be more aware of or better understand problems than others.”

In fact, given their guidance in the letter, Leff worried that the AGs “may be least well-positioned to offer good advice to DOT.”

He offered two examples of how their suggestions could backfire, big time.

“‘Requiring adequate staffing’ with regular Department audits creates new levels of complexity without likely creating benefits,” Leff said.

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“Airlines were short-staffed because they effectively used federal bailout money to pay people to retire early, in contravention of the intent of payroll support programs,” he admitted. “However, they’ve since largely addressed that issue. Creating federal standards of adequate staffing is an invitation for the federal government to require union featherbedding.”

Second, he worries that issuing fines for delays that are not weather-related “is an incentive to skip on maintenance and compromise safety — the opposite of what we’d want.”

Leff pointed out that the DOT — which is undertaking its current rulemaking partly in response to political pressure on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — “was active on the refunds issue from nearly the beginning of the pandemic, and quickly achieved voluntary compliance from airlines like United and JetBlue which were recalcitrant.”

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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