ADVOCATES

Consumer rights advocates.

In a regularly scheduled meeting this week, a group of consumer advocates will tell the Department of Transportation (DOT) that the top goal for protection of air travelers right now is for the DOT to do what it has already been told it should do by Congress or the General Accounting Office. Not any additional protections. Not any new initiatives. Nothing to address such major travelers' pain points as outrageous ticket change fees. At best, the consumer advocates hope is limited to trying to ask -- politely, of course -- for the DOT to do its job.

This group of advocates includes just about any organization and individual you can think of with a legitimate claim to the title of "consumer advocate." I'm pleased to be counted among them. Representatives who actually attend the meeting are mostly those with offices in the Washington, Philadelphia and New York areas, but other outliers and I have had input to the discussion. Initial focus will be on three issues that Congress has already acted upon:

The SEAT Act asks the FAA to study whether it should establish minimum seat space levels in commercial transports to assure an adequate level of safety. Its genesis is the historical fact that in a survivable crash, travelers who survive an impact can be killed by fire and smoke inhalation because they can't get out of the cabin quickly enough. FAA requires that commercial airliners be designed to allow complete evacuation of a disabled but largely intact airframe in 90 seconds or less. In prior years, aircraft manufacturers have run test of actual cabin mock-ups with actual people, but nothing has been done with seating as dense as it is in today's economy class cabins. Even those early tests are questionable, in that no such test can ever include the factor of the panic that ensues in an actual crash. And subsequent updates have relied on computer simulation -- and do you really want to trust your life to a computer simulation?

I highly doubt that even an FAA study will result in roomier seats. It's all too easy for FAA to claim, "Yes, we studied the issue, and we find that today's tight seating is fine.

The Families Sitting Together Act calls for rules requiring airlines to seat children adjacent to accompanying adult family members without requiring them to pay extra for pre-assigned seats. To me, this one is a no-brainer: The Canadians have already adopted it in their latest consumer protection rules. In practice, most airlines apparently do make an effort to seat families together, often resulting in haphazard "musical chairs" shifting people around prior to departure. But that often leads to delay. And also in practice, airlines keep telling people that they should buy advance seat assignment.

Refunds for delayed baggage. This suggestion arises from the obvious premise that people who have to pay for a checked bag should get their money back if the airlines fails to deliver it "in a timely manner." Actually, the current proposal is extremely weak, allowing airlines many hours, when the rule should really require a refund if a checked bag doesn't arrive when the traveler does. Delayed-bag hassles begin the minute your bag doesn't show up on the carousel; not a day later.

GAO Recommendations. A recent GAO report made six recommendations focused on the way DOT handles and analyses customer complaints and how well it educates travelers about these procedures.

What's Missing. Most of us have apparently given up about pushing the envelope, at least for now, and have instead settled for asking action on established requirements. The U.S. lags behind both Canada and the European Union in requiring airlines to compensate passengers for delays and to rebook delayed or cancelled passengers on other airlines if space is available. Unfortunately, we seem to believe that filling in the current protection gaps is beyond our reach. Maybe so, but those gaps need to be filled -- and even if nothing happens next week, we won't forget.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed's new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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