We have been searching for a polite way to tell the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee that he's making a big mistake. We suppose this will have to do: "Dear Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia: Sir, we believe you are making a big mistake."
The senator's big mistake is not in trying to close the alleged "gaps" in consumer protection and safety oversight that he finds in the cruise industry. If there are "gaps," then they ought to be addressed. Nobody disputes that. But Rockefeller has been addressing them with all the subtlety of a freight train, and he jumps the track in believing that the Transportation Department's (DOT) regime for airline consumer protection is the right model for the cruise industry.
We don't believe it is.
Rockefeller explained in a press statement that his Cruise Passenger Protection Act of 2013 would make the DOT "the lead federal agency for cruise ship consumer protection, similar to the role it has in aviation consumer protection."
Under the bill, several of the functions that the DOT performs in the aviation sphere would be re-created for the cruise industry. The problem is that the bill doesn't improve these activities, and it re-creates their imperfections.
For example, the bill would require the DOT to replicate for the cruise industry its regime for collecting data on airline consumer complaints. But the legislation seems to assume that compiling statistics about the number of complaints will serve some purpose.
Congress and the cruise industry should know a dirty little secret that aviation insiders have known for years: The DOT's decades-old database of consumer complaint statistics contains absolutely no information about the validity of the complaints or the responsiveness of the airlines in resolving them. Unless the complaints can be verified, and the results audited, a mere count simply creates a number with little probative value.
The bill also ignores the role of travel agents in counseling clients and advocating for them. Nowhere in describing the regime for advising passengers about contracts and consumer hot lines is there any recognition of the role of intermediaries. And, clearly, if there's going to be an advisory committee whispering in the DOT's ear, there ought to be travel agents on it.
The bill also gives the DOT the power to investigate all manner of incidents, including consumer complaints about advertising claims, refunds, delayed baggage delivery, delayed departures, itinerary changes, onboard conditions and other matters.
The DOT would be empowered to impose civil penalties for "violations," and to refer some matters for criminal prosecution, but there are no clear standards in the bill about what constitutes a violation and what constitutes a crime.
There is no regulatory body within the DOT that is set up to do any of this, so a rule-making and rule-enforcing body, another travel-regulating bureaucracy, would have to be created, either within the Office of the Secretary or within the Maritime Administration.
Fellow Commerce Committee member Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) told Rockefeller at last week's hearing that he's "very nervous" about involving the DOT in this process, and said the Senate should give the cruise industry more time to refine CLIA's two-month-old Bill of Rights.
It was the best advice the chairman got all day.