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Who Has Travelers’ Backs? (Hint: Not IATA)

The history of what might be called a Passenger Bill or Rights is a saga of fits and starts, of feints and diversions, of progress promised and promises derailed.

The closest travelers have come to meaningful protections were the provisions of the FAA Modernization and Safety Improvement Act of 2012. Years after a series of hours-long tarmac delays, during which passengers were denied food, water, and restroom access, the government finally formalized a set of very basic consumer protections, including the prohibition of “excessive” tarmac delays.

Although reports of insufferable tarmac delays have mostly disappeared, the quality of the airline-travel experience overall has, if anything, deteriorated further.

Could there be relief in sight? If the terms “consumer protection” have any meaning, travelers indeed might be forgiven for thinking there’s reason to hope.

Unfortunately, the latest promise of consumer protections comes from a compromised source: the International Air Transport Association, which represents the interests of airlines rather than airlines’ customers. (This is like having lobbyists draft legislation regulating the industry they’re paid to protect. Consumers would be naive to expect such rules to have any teeth.)

The headline of a news release circulated by IATA earlier this week entices with the following promise: “Industry Stepping Up Engagement on Consumer Protection.” But, not surprisingly, it turns out that IATA is more interested in protecting airlines from what it views as irksome regulations than it is in protecting flyers from airline misbehavior. According to an IATA official:

Consumer protection is not about winners and losers. Everybody wants the passenger to get to his or her destination safely and on schedule. And in an intensely competitive business such as aviation, when things go wrong, airlines have a natural incentive to keep their customers happy—as is the case in any service industry.

Looking at the nature of some of the regulations being produced, it seems that some governments are ignoring basic commercial principles. And they are producing regulations that do not address the root causes of many travel disruptions. In light of this, IATA and the airlines need to contribute a new perspective to the conversation on consumer protection.

In other words, free the airlines from onerous government regulation and the forces of the free market will naturally force them to treat their customers well.

So what does IATA propose? These are what it calls the “core principles” that should be reflected in consumer protections:

  • Regulations should be clear so that passengers can understand their rights.
  • Airlines should ensure that their passengers are always kept informed and establish efficient complaint handling procedures.
  • Passenger “entitlements” should be proportional in a situation of service breakdown.
  • Governments should be consistent when regulating, “so that airlines and consumers no longer need to contend with further contradictory passenger rights regimes around the world.”

Of course, IATA has every right to promote the interests of the airline industry. That’s what it’s paid to do. But it should do so forthrightly; its claim to be “engaged” with consumer protections is insupportable on its face. On the contrary, travelers may well feel they need to be protected from IATA.

Reader Reality Check

Consumer protections, or airline protections?

This article originally appeared on

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