Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently agreed to field questions from yours truly, along with a few from SmarterTravel readers. As you'll see below, we covered topics ranging from the recent consumer protections proposals to cockpit safety to high-speed rail. Read on to see what the Secretary had to say, and feel free to comment below. Thanks!
Today in Travel: A recent article in the Chicago Tribune brought up the issue of congested airports, specifically at O'Hare, where, according to the Tribune, airlines "jam too many flights into the most congested hours." Does the DOT/FAA have any immediate plans to force airlines into more responsible, reasonable scheduling practices, particularly at crowded airports such as O’Hare and JFK?
Secretary Ray LaHood: We are already taking aggressive action on this. In April, our first consumer aviation rule went into effect, which not only banned lengthy tarmac delays and required airlines to provide passengers with food and water after two hours, but also established potential fines for chronically late flights (defined as flights that arrive more than 30 minutes late more than 50 percent of the time for more than four months. In addition, the FAA already has instituted controls on flights at crowded New York airports, including John F. Kennedy International Airport, as well as LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International airports. Further, the FAA is working to identify when airlines have scheduled too many flights at the same time or at peak times. If they see too many flights during congested hours at already crowded airports, the FAA will work with the airlines as appropriate to adjust the schedules.
Question from reader miffdb: I’m curious about compensation for itinerary changes and delays due to mechanical problems, i.e. not weather related. I had a five hour delay recently—missed a transatlantic connection—and was offered nothing, no hotel voucher, no meal voucher, no flight compensation. Are we ever going to see something along the lines of EU rules which seem to favor the traveler a bit more in situations like that?
RL: Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport, and some do provide hotel or meal vouchers during long delays, particularly if it is the carrier’s fault. If you are delayed, ask the airline staff if they will pay for meals or, in the case of an overnight delay, a hotel room. Before you book your flight, you may wish to check the web sites of the larger carriers for their voluntary Customer Service Plans, which list the amenities that those airlines will provide to passengers. The DOT website has links to all of these plans as well.
TNT: The new consumer protections proposals look like a big win for passengers. One question I’ve heard, though, is why didn’t the DOT propose eliminating the practice of overbooking entirely? Considering most people fly on nonrefundable tickets these days, it hardly seems necessary for airlines to oversell their flights. Can you explain why this option was left off the table?
RL: The question of whether overbooking should be eliminated has been discussed for decades. While it can be a tremendous inconvenience to passengers who are involuntarily bumped, overbooking has some benefits to passengers, such as allowing consumers to have more flexibility in making and canceling reservations as well as buying and refunding tickets. For that reason, our goal is to minimize denied boardings by requiring airlines to pay compensation to passengers who are bumped involuntarily, and to solicit volunteers if bumping becomes necessary. Our recent proposal would substantially increase the compensation levels to further increase the incentives for carriers to minimize involuntary oversales and to benefit bumped passengers.
TNT: Speaking of consumer protections, what’s your response to critics who say tarmac delays, and even some of these latest consumer proposals, affect too few people to necessitate federal regulation?
RL: Lengthy tarmac delays are a major hardship on passengers affected by them. Just ask any of the passengers stuck on the tarmac overnight in Rochester, Minnesota last year. We are committed to passengers’ rights and strongly believe that people should be protected from being held aboard an aircraft for an indefinite time.
TNT: Following the Colgan crash investigation, much attention was been paid to regional pilots, particularly their rigorous schedules, which can include long commutes and, subsequently, inadequate rest. But while commuting and inadequate rest take their toll, one could argue that the root cause of these problems is the low pay and extremely long on-duty periods these young pilots must accept if they want the job. Suggested reforms have ranged from restricting the number of hours a crew member can commute to revising the FAA’s rest and on-duty policies. What do you see as the most reasonable solution to this situation?
RL: Working conditions can definitely have an effect on the way a pilot does his or her job. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has said the best safety improvements are the result of the FAA, air carriers and employee organizations working together.
That’s why, last year, we chartered an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) composed of representatives from the FAA, regional and major air carriers and pilot organizations and asked them to make recommendations on science-based duty and rest regulations. They are making progress and have reached a framework for new regulations. Pay is the more challenging issue, since that is worked out between employees and air carriers and is not regulated by the government. I agree, however, that we need to attract the best and the brightest to the industry and good pay is one way to do that.
TNT: Speaking of pilots, cockpit behavior has also been in the news, especially the use of personal electronic devices (PED) during flights. When the FAA released its memo about cockpit safety and PED use, you wrote in your blog that "The flying public … expect[s] their pilots to focus on flying safely at all times. And rightly so ... Our aviation system has a terrific safety record, but we can only maintain that record by minimizing risk wherever possible, including in the cockpit." Some people, however (myself included), fear that too many cockpit regulations might create an environment so stressful that it’s actually less conducive to focused, attentive flying. With that in mind, I wonder if you can explain, in practical terms, what sort of behavior you expect from pilots, and where you draw the line in terms of cockpit behavior.
RL: Pilots are responsible for the lives of their passengers and we expect them to take that responsibility very seriously. We need to keep distractions out of the cockpit, whether it’s a cell phone, a book or a newspaper. Pilots need to be focused on their job. Pilots are expected to be constantly engaged in flying the aircraft and managing the flight—at all times.
Question from reader Boraxo: Does the DOT have plans to draft regulations requiring honest and complete disclosure of frequent flyer award seat inventory and release dates?
RL: Primarily for competitive reasons, carriers do not typically disclose the number of frequent flyer seats they make available on particular flights and routes and those numbers often change over time. But, frequent flyer programs are still subject to statutory prohibitions concerning unfair and deceptive practices, and our Aviation Enforcement Office does monitor carriers’ practices for potential violations.
TNT: Earlier this year, the DOT Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a fairly critical report on the FAA’s oversight of American Airlines, citing numerous failures to perform basic assessments of the airlines maintenance procedures. Still, the past 8 to 9 years are among the safest the industry has ever seen, in terms of accidents. What do you see as the industry’s strengths, in terms of keeping travelers safe, and what reforms do you hope to implement to ensure that safety record remains strong?
RL: This is the safest period in aviation history, and the FAA and DOT have worked hard to get here. Since FAA Administrator Babbitt and I issued a call to action on airline safety and pilot training last year, we've seen a number of airlines adopt voluntary data-sharing programs that help predict—and address—risk factors for future accidents before they happen. We believe that industry-wide adoption of Safety Management Systems (SMS), which provide a continuous feedback loop on safety practices, will help maintain and improve our safety record.
Question from reader G. Miller: The Obama administration has made a lot of effort to boost high-speed rail service in the US. While I strongly commend the effort, I am concerned that it is too limited in scope and will take decades to have any meaningful impact on our congested air and highway systems. Has the administration considered making an executive order to put in the investment and government action necessary to start making a major impact now? Along those lines, would the administration support high-speed rail to connect airports to city centers (like in many foreign cities)? The benefits to our economy (immediately from new jobs and in the future through localized economic development), environment, and stressed transportation network are worth the effort.
RL: President Obama’s bold vision for high-speed rail is a game changer for our national transportation system. High-speed rail is not just a good way to create good jobs and economic opportunities, it’s also going to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and oil from overseas. But, like our world-class interstate highway system, it will not be built overnight.
The $8 billion that the President, Vice President Biden and I announced last January, the largest for rail since President Lincoln, is only a down-payment on the 13 new, large-scale high-speed rail corridors we plan to build in 31 states across the country. Our FY 2010 budget also includes $2.5 billion for high speed rail and we are confident Congress will dedicate additional funds in the future years.
Like similar undertakings in Europe and Japan, we view this program as a long-term investment. I have no doubt that building the next generation of rail service in this country will help change our society for the better. While it will take time, as these lines come alive, Americans will see reduced congestion and energy consumption, as well as increased convenience. Our goal would be a seamless, intermodal travel experience in which passengers could transfer between train and plane without having to re-check their baggage. There’s room for all modes in the U.S. transportation experience.
TNT: The DOT has accomplished a lot in the past 18 months, from dealing with tarmac delays, adding consumer protections, expanding rail service to underserved areas, and levying significant fines against carriers for unfair practices. What are the major problems still on your agenda, and what do you hope to accomplish during the next couple of years?
RL: The Obama Administration believes that transportation decisions must be re-oriented to put the needs of people, the travelers, first. For that reason, safety is—and will remain—our number one priority. We owe it to our citizens to have bridges, roads, air transportation systems and other facilities that are safe and in good repair. We are also working hard to put an end to dangerous behavior that puts travelers at risk, such as distracted driving.
We will continue to push to shift from a ground-based technology system of air traffic control to a Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). NextGen will not only enhance safety but will also improve the flying experience for the traveling public. In addition, it will dramatically increase the efficiency of our aviation system, reducing fuel consumption and leading to reduced levels of carbon dioxide and other emissions that affect air quality.
I’m also working hard with my counterparts at HUD and EPA to foster livable communities, in order to give people access to convenient, affordable and environmentally sustainable housing and transportation options.
We have big goals for transforming our transportation infrastructure and it will be a challenge to find ways to pay for it. We are continuing to work with Congress on ways to finance investments across the full range of surface transportation infrastructure modes.