No, the Department of Transportation Didn’t Just Undermine Air Traveler Consumer Protections. Why Do You Ask?

The Department of Transportation stopped taking comments on a proposed rule that would have mandated how all airline schedules and prices would be displayed.

Typically, it’s being misreported by the media as a simplistic ‘business win over consumer’ story, and a ‘rollback of Obama administration efforts’ story. When that’s really not the case at all. Here’s a typical summary:

The U.S. Transportation Department has taken its first steps to undo actions by the administration of Barack Obama to improve consumer protections for airline travelers, putting on hold a proposal to require more disclosure of passenger fees.

Or as the usually level-headed Brian Sumers writes, “It’s another win for big business, courtesy of the Trump Administration. Who cares about consumers, anyway?”

Say what?

It’s weird to describe this as ‘undoing actions by the Obama administration’ when:

  1. It’s not undoing any actions at all, the Obama administration didn’t take action on the proposal at issue and neither will the Trump administration.
  2. The effect is to leave in place Obama administration rules, not undo the rules that were adopted under the last administration.

Here’s what’s actually happened. Over two years ago, the Obama administration opened regulatory comments on a proposal that would require every website displaying airline schedules to prominently disclose the same set of fees up front.

The original version of the proposal suggested a pop up (how would this work in mobile?). If an airline wasn’t going to come up in the display, that had to be flagged (free advertising for Southwest). If the site was going to recommend one flight over another, it had to reveal its methodology. And since everyone would have to follow the same display rules, it would have spelled the end of innovation to figure out how to make trip planning more customized and easier to understand.

After two years, the Obama Administration did nothing on this proposal. All they came out with was a requirement to refund checked bag fees if bags are substantially delayed (but they didn’t even decide what substantially delayed meant), require airlines to report on-time performance inclusive of regional carriers, and require disclosure of mishandling of wheel chairs and of financial relationships that bias flight search results.

The Obama administration couldn’t get through the thicket of how to mandate the one way that all airfares every had to be displayed. So they re-opened comments. Now the DOT under Secretary Elaine Chao has closed the comment docket. They aren’t going to try this either.

  • This isn’t short-circuiting consumer protections from the Obama administration, this leaves in place the existing consumer protections adopted by the Obama administration at 14 CFR 399.85 requiring disclosure of fees.

  • It isn’t a ‘win for business, loss for consumers’ story because wading through the same information on every display isn’t great for consumers. We want innovation to figure out how to give consumers the right information, in the right form, at the right time to make travel clearer in the future than it is today.

The Trump administration is choosing not to act on a rule that the Obama administration chose not to act on.

The closest the Department of Transportation is coming to ‘undoing’ any action actually taken by the previous administration is to delay implementation of wheelchair mishandling statistics disclosure requirements by one year until 2019.

Even Charlie Leocha, who seemingly supports anything that regulates airlines, says “We’re basically back to where we were at the beginning of October.” Which is to say every rule adopted in the Obama administration remains.

Disclosure: The Department of Transportation, first under the Obama administration and now under the Trump administration, did what I recommended in a September 2014 regulatory comment leaving existing disclosure requirements in place and not layering on additional regulations.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary
    Any insight on this !!!!! Ughhhhh
    I can’t stand Trump!!!

    European Parliament votes to end visa-free travel for Americans

    Jon Sharman,The Independent 4 hours ago

    The European Parliament has voted to end visa-free travel for Americans within the EU.
    It comes after the US failed to agree visa-free travel for citizens of five EU countries – Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania – as part of a reciprocity agreement. US citizens can normally travel to all countries in the bloc without a visa.
    The vote by the parliament’s civil liberties committee, which urged the revocation of the scheme within two months, means Americans will have to apply for extra documents for 12 months after the European Commission implements it.

  2. I despise Trump, but in all fairness, this dispute did not originate with him, although just having him in office might be the spark that’s compelled the European Parliament to act.

    According to the New York Times: “In 2014, the European Commission was notified that the United States and four other countries — Australia, Brunei, Canada and Japan — were failing to provide reciprocal, visa-free travel to citizens of some European Union countries.

    Australia, Brunei and Japan have resolved differences with the European Union, and an agreement with Canada is expected to take effect in December for all citizens of Bulgaria and Romania, according to a statement from the European Parliament.”

  3. What an AEI-type spin. Now for the fact:

    The sudden closing of the comments period was the Trump Admin’s effort to stop additional regulation of airlines on this front.

    The US airlines and their lobbyists had a good week in this regard, courtesy of the Trump Admin doing this favor for the airlines.

  4. @GUWonder they stopped a process of additional regulation that even the Obama administration was unwilling to move forward with, because it would have been counterproductive however they implemented. But it did NOT roll back any regulation it left all existing regulation in place, which isn’t being properly reported in the press.

    No idea what AEI has to do with it, neither I nor Secretary Chao ever worked there.

  5. @Louise

    The visa requirement has only been voted out of committee, not passed by the whole European Parliament. Maybe that will also happen, maybe not…

    But I’m pretty sure they started this move in 2014 after being informed by the NSA that Trump was going to be elected POTUS, and this rule was originally proposed by Putin. 😉

  6. Please stop with the “Why do you ask?” in headlines. You’re a better writer than this.

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