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