USA Today Editorial Board NEWS-PRESS
Fly The Friendly Skies? Not So Much
December 20, 2017
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  • When you’re waiting in an airport line during the holiday travel crush or crammed into your tiny seat on the plane, here’s something to think about — all the customer-friendly changes you’re not getting for Christmas:

    You won’t, for example, be getting more transparency about baggage fees when you book flights online. This month, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao abandoned an Obama-era proposal that would have provided air travelers with specifics about baggage fees in a convenient place before they buy a ticket.

    The fees — from $25 on most major airlines and up to $100 on budget-carrier Spirit — are not shown on the first screen with the fare. Comparing costs can require clicking on hyperlinks, moving from site to site, and pulling out a calculator.

    You shouldn’t need an advanced degree in math to buy an airline ticket. But airlines have battled similar proposals since 2014. Now Chao, stating that the action isn’t necessary to protect consumers from hidden fees, has given the airlines their way.

    If you’re disabled, or traveling with someone who is, you won’t be able to find out which airlines lose or damage the most wheelchairs.

    Starting  on New Year’s Day 2018, airlines were supposed to start disclosing that information, allowing fliers to avoid carriers with bad records. But in March, the trade group Airlines for America, which lobbies for the industry, sought a delay because it said airlines were facing challenges. The Department of Transportation delayed the start an extra year, to Jan. 1, 2019.

    After five years of discussion and with 13 months to get ready, there was no excuse for airlines to seek more time or for the government to grant it.

    Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a disabled veteran, wrote to Chao in April asking the agency to speed up the timetable. Duckworth’s own wheelchair was damaged so badly on a flight last spring, it “literally broke apart while I was sitting in it.” She had a replacement for the five days it took for repairs, but many people don’t. “If a wheelchair or motorized scooter is damaged or lost,” Duckworth wrote, “it represents a complete loss of mobility and independence for that passenger.”

    You won’t get to comment further on whether airlines should distribute fare, schedule and fee information to online travel sites and meta-search sites such as Kayak and Hipmunk, which allow customers to compare costs. DOT suspended the effort to gather comments. Airlines argue the government should not dictate how they do business. But passengers benefit from reliable data from independent sources, making the free market work.

    As we pointed out before Thanksgiving, the Transportation Department also has moved at a glacial pace on congressional mandates to require airlines to refund fees for substantially delayed baggage and, if appropriate, establish a policy easing the way for parents to sit next to their young children.

    A DOT spokesman says gathering and analyzing  public comments and evaluating impact are required steps for every regulation, “and we don’t have the option of rushing.” Further, the Trump administration “inherited a long list of forgotten rules that have languished over time” in the Obama administration.

    That’s true. Airline passengers often waited for years while the Obama administration took its sweet time on rules and policies to make flying less of a hassle.

    All the more reason why the Trump administration — whose leader was elected as a champion of the middle class — should be eager to make the skies friendlier for fliers.