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Meet Your Rep: The Passenger Rights Lobby in D.C.

Today in Travel caught up with Charles Leocha, long-time travel industry analyst and writer, who recently branched off into somewhat uncharted territory as Director of the newly formed Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA). CTA bills itself as the traveler's voice in Washington, lobbying for passenger rights and protections. As its website points out, "The airlines industry spent $31 million lobbying Congress last year. The hotel industry plunked down $8 million and the cruise industry dropped more than $6 million on lobbying. How much did travelers spend to get their voices heard in Washington? Nothing." That's a pretty compelling call to arms if I've ever heard one.

Here's what Leocha had to say about passenger rights, tarmac delays, and the challenges of working in Washington.

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Today in Travel (TNT): First of all, can you update us on the FAA Reauthorization Bill? What is your take on the bill and its chances of being passed any time soon?

Chales Leocha (CL): The FAA Reauthorization Bill is still stalled in Congress. The Senate Commerce Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have passed differing versions. The Senate is still waiting for the finance committee to figure out how they want to pay for the bill.

Though the bill focuses for the most part on moving forward with modernizing the air traffic control system, other relatively major issues from a consumer's point of view still need to be settled in a conference committee should the bills move forward.

The tarmac-delay provisions in the Senate version that mandate a three-hour rule as a maximum for runway delays does not match up with the house version of the tarmac-delay provisions. The House version, based on one-size-does-not-fit-all thinking, leaves it to the airlines to define their maximum runway delay and then the FAA will enforce that time. Support for the three-hour rule has been building after the recent tarmac delays in Rochester, Minnesota, and on the Sun Country flight from New York to Minneapolis.

The second serious issue is an anti-alliance provision inserted into the House version of the bill by its Chairman, James Oberstar. This section calls for a three-year limit on airline alliances to allow for a full study of the ramifications of the recent spate of antitrust immunity rulings that have allowed most of the major airlines to form, in essence, three large international airline groups that can coordinate schedules and pricing.

Tarmac-delay legislation may help with runway delays, however, the real problem is our antiquated air traffic control system. And, of course, enforcement of any new provisions won't help those stranded, but will punish airlines that are guilty of the practice. The anti-trust immunity issue has far more significant ramifications. If the current alliances are allowed to proceed with their joint ventures, consumers will find themselves with less choice and higher international airfares when the airline industry rebounds.

When will all this will happen? Who knows. Congress has left the funding of the FAA on autopilot while the various committees wrangle. My best bet is that this FAA mess will be settled in the spring. However, Congress must provide another continuing funding resolution before the end of the year and perhaps the logjam will be eliminated then.

The Consumer Travel Alliance has urged members of Congress to get the long-term funding for air traffic control portion moved forward as soon as possible and save potential arguments over tarmac delays and airline alliances for the next reauthorization.

TNT: If Congress asked you to draft passenger rights legislation, what would your priorities be?

CL: Ironically, the Air Transport Association's "Customers First 12 Point Customer Service Commitment" is a good start. The only problem with this commitment is no means of enforcement. If the airline abided by their own lip service, passenger complaints would plummet.

As part of passenger rights, the Federal Trade Comission or Department of Transportation should force airlines to advertise honest, available prices rather than engage the traveling public in a massive bait-and-switch campaign. Plus, the public should be able to make easy comparisons between various airfares including additional fees for baggage.

TNT: In a recent poll, 78 percent of our readers said a three-hour tarmac delay limit isn’t tough enough, and that any passenger rights legislation should aim for something more strict. What are your thoughts about this and tarmac delay limits in general?

CL: The root of the problem is our antiquated air traffic control system. We are still using 1950s radar technology. Improving that technology will help air-traffic delays immensely. The second major factor for delays across the country is the overloaded New York City airspace. An FAA executive who has focused on this problem for the past years told me that 70 percent of the systems delays can be traced to problems with New York congestion.

TNT: Even though CTA is still a pretty young organization, how do you feel about what you’ve done so far?

CL: CTA has been working in Washington, D.C., for about nine months, learning about committees, regulators, other travel associations, and media. We have had some successes according to others who have been working in D.C. for years. Notably:

CTA has worked to support Flyersrights.org and its efforts to limit tarmac delays, attending all of its Capitol Hill meetings and events; led a successful phone call and email effort to prevent whole-body scanners from being used as primary screening devices at airports; formally commented on airline alliance issues, urging further review of the antitrust immunity provisions and their effect on consumers; led a consumer effort to guarantee that no consumer credit card protections would be lost when United Airlines announced plans to change how airline tickets would be purchased through travel agents; and wrote to each major airline CEO asking them to suspend change fees and penalties for sick passengers traveling during this current flu season (CTA also conducted a poll asking whether passengers would travel with the flu. More than 70 percent of passengers answered "yes").

In addition, we have attended all Senate and House committee meetings that deal with transportation as well as dozens of smaller regulatory meetings dealing with FAA issues, Homeland Security, and Customs and Border Protection.

TNT: What are the biggest obstacles you face in Washington? What about Washington has surprised you?

CL: The biggest obstacle is definitely funding. Finding funds to support research and pay for an organization that can have an impact in the D.C. legislative and regulatory world is one of my biggest efforts. Surprisingly, we have excellent access to members of Congress and regulators.

The breadth of travel-related issues has been my biggest surprise. We are the only organization dedicated to overall consumer travel issues working in Washington, D.C., right now. We really need far more staff just to cover the issues from an informational aspect.

All of the following areas have strong travel components and all are affected by what happens in Washington—airlines, rail, buses, rental cars, travel insurance, health insurance, cruising, customs and border protection, Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, visas and passports, air traffic control, transportation safety, pilot training, credit cards, exchange fees, foreign transactions fees, airline alliances, swine flu, privacy, and more.

My other surprise has been the hunger that both regulators and legislators have for consumer issue information. They are eager to meet with us when we can provide examples of how rules and legislation is affecting Americans out in the "real world."

TNT: Looking ahead, how do you see CTA fitting into the average consumer’s life? What other travel-related issues are you pursuing?

CL: As you can see, the palette is filled with scores of issues. Our efforts will affect far more than simply airline delays. We hope to improve the entire travel experience, even when our efforts would be "under the radar." When travelers are on the road, our efforts will eventually affect everything from the costs of using a credit card and purchasing tickets to having use of travel insurance and having better protections for personal information.

Our future issues will focus on transferability of airline tickets, improvement of the New York City air traffic system, privacy and data protection, and validity of health insurance across borders.

Readers, tell me what you think. Do we need a voice in Washington? Do you agree on some of the issues raised here?

Read comments or add your own insight!
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