The more things change, the more politicians don't

Remember what you learned in eighth-grade civics class about how our government is supposed to work?A social problem becomes apparent due to outcries from the public and the media, concerned legislators write a bill to correct it, and Congress passes the bill into law. Problem solved.

But here's how it often really works: concerned legislators write bills to correct the problem, get favorable publicity, and then sit down with the parties causing the trouble and decide not to pass any laws after all. The process is called lobbying, and it has made any chance of improved air travel highly unlikely.

Early this year, after Northwest Airlines left thousands of passengers stranded on planes for hours during a snowstorm, and American Airlines pilots staged a massive sickout that left thousands of flights canceled, several bills were introduced in Congress that would have forced the airlines to start giving passengers better treatment, more information about delays, and more compensation for the inconveniences they suffer (bumpings, lost bags).

The main bill in the Senate, sponsored by Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, would have guaranteed a full refund for passengers who cancel within 48 hours of purchasing a ticket (whatever type of fare they paid) and would also have required airlines to disclose information about all available fares (no matter which distribution channel the tickets were being sold through).

The primary House bill, sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Bud Shuster, called for airlines to compensate passengers stuck for two hours or more in a grounded plane by paying them at least twice the value of their tickets; to offer full refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled for economic reasons; and to meet stringent new federal reporting requirements regarding delays and cancellations.

Both versions would have forced airlines to give passengers more information about why a flight is late or canceled, the status of lost bags, and the availability of frequent-flier award seats; and both would have guaranteed the right to use only certain portions of a ticket (sometimes it's cheaper to get from A to B by buying a ticket from A to B to C—a tactic known as hidden-city ticketing). The Clinton administration suggested that airlines should have to pay bumped passengers twice as much as they do now ($400 maximum).

The airlines argued, of course, that any such legislative mandates would impose major new costs on their operations, diminishing their ability to offer bargain fares to travelers.

Then the lobbyists got involved. In June, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater announced that, after meetings with congressional leaders and Department of Transportation (DOT) staffers, the airlines had come up with a voluntary program of fair treatment for customers—essentially precluding the need for so-called "passenger rights" legislation.

  • Among the airlines' promises:
  • To always offer callers "the lowest fare available for which the customer is eligible on the airline's telephone reservation system."
  • To provide "the best available information" about flight delays and cancellations, and to develop "clear and concise" policies concerning the accommodation of passengers delayed overnight.
  • To make "every reasonable effort" to return lost bags within 24 hours.
  • To support an increase in the airlines' financial liability for lost bags.
  • To hold reservations for at least 24 hours before passengers must buy a ticket or cancel the booking.
  • To process refunds within seven days for credit card purchases, 20 days for cash (assuming the tickets are refundable).
  • To make "every reasonable effort" to provide necessities (food, water, toilets) to passengers who are stuck in planes on the ground for extended periods.
  • To tell callers, in some circumstances, whether a flight is overbooked—but only if the consumer asks.
  • To respond to customer complaints within 60 days.

Unlike the proposed legislation, the airlines' program contains a lot of vague language—what exactly does "every reasonable effort" mean?—and no enforcement procedures for violators. Slater conceded that the airline promises "fall short in some respects" of the bills, but he pledged that the airlines will be "closely monitored" by the DOT. He also said the DOT will start a proceeding to boost the airlines' maximum liability for lost and damaged bags on domestic flights from $1,250 to $2,500.

Slater singled out eight U.S. senators (McCain, Wyden, Jay Rockefeller, Slade Gorton, Ernest Hollings, Richard Shelby, Frank Lautenberg, Richard Bryan) and two representatives (Shuster, James Oberstar) for securing these promises from the airlines "under the pressure of proposed legislation."

But who's securing whom?We checked Federal Election Commission records, only to find that the political action committees of the five largest airlines (United, American, Delta, Northwest, and Continental) contributed a total of $118,000 over the past three years to the campaigns of those legislators (except Rockefeller, who received nothing).

Joe Galloway, president of the American Society of Travel Agents (which has tried for more than a year to promote the concept of a passenger bill of rights), said the airlines' victory over Congress with their hazy pledge shows "the continued triumph of hope over experience."

"Most of this proposal is merely a restatement of existing policy," fumed Galloway. "It reflects little that's new or innovative in the way airlines treat customers." For example, he said, passengers should have the right to use, or not use, any portion of their ticket as they see fit—opening up the possibility of consumer-friendly (but currently banned) tactics like hidden-city and back-to-back ticketing. He also noted a serious omission in the airlines' pledge to tell customers about the lowest fare available through their "telephone reservation systems." For one thing, that means they don't have to inform phone-in customers about cheaper fares offered only via the Internet.

Finally, the ASTA president noted that in several states "consumers and travel agents have no recourse against the airlines under state consumer laws"—a situation that only Congress can remedy. "Even the state consumer protection agencies have said this must be fixed, yet there has been no attempt to give air travelers their day in court."

The folks at, a new Web site devoted to airline abuse of travelers, are also outraged. The voluntary plan "is another attempt to sweep the problems under the carpet and avoid facing the issues that plague the airline industry," they charged. Ivan Michael Schaeffer, president of a travel-agency group called Woodside Travel Trust, said the major airlines shouldn't be allowed "to create their own standards for disclosure of pricing and schedule information. These carriers have demonstrated that their primary focus is to increase control of their markets so that they can raise fares."

ASTA has pledged to keep fighting, giving most of its support to a House bill (sponsored by Republican John Sweeney of New York) that contains many elements of the original bills, as well as creating a national commission to investigate "airlines' practices of reducing or eliminating consumer ability to access comparative information" on fares. Stay tuned.

In-flight annoyances: What are the odds?

You'd think, with the advance of technology, flying would be faster than ever. But a recent study by the inspector general at the Department of Transportation determined that, from 1988 to 1997, gate-to-gate travel times have actually increased on almost three-fourths of the nation's 2,115 busiest routes. In fact, flights from Atlanta to San Diego and from Newark to Los Angeles take about 20 minutes longer than they did a decade ago. And from May 1998 through April 1999, every fourth flight was late (defined as arriving at least 15 minutes after its scheduled time). Here are some other stomach-churning DOT stats.

Percentage of flights arriving on time (i.e. within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival time)
Period covered: May 1998-April 1999
DELTA 80.3
TWA 79.0

Baggage Problems
Reports of bags lost, delayed, damaged, or pilfered (number of incidents per 1,000 passengers)
Period covered: January-April 1999
DELTA 4.97
TWA 6.08

"Involuntary denied boardings" (passengers "bumped" per 100,000 passengers boarded)
Period covered: January-March 1999
DELTA 33.3
TWA 25.6

Call Someone Who Cares

Here are some places to turn if you're looking to file a complaint, find information about your rights as an air passenger, or read up on the airlines' rules.
• The Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division publishes a 58-.