The airlines -- all of them, apparently -- are telling the Transportation Department that they need more time to comply with the batch of new consumer protection rules that the department published two months ago. We think the DOT should listen.



As we've reported on our news pages, U.S. and foreign airlines claim that the DOT's rule changes are so sweeping and complex that it just isn't feasible to reprogram their systems and retrain their employees to meet the published compliance dates: Aug. 23 for most of the rules and Oct. 24 for the price advertising rule.

Are the airlines exaggerating the cost and complexity of changing their systems to comply? We don't know, though it's a safe bet that some hyperbole is happening.

But we continue to believe that the DOT was a little heavy-handed with some of these rules, so we're inclined to give the industry the benefit of the doubt. Maybe a little extra time will give the carriers a better chance of getting it right.

It says something about the complexity of this package of rules that the DOT has found it necessary to schedule several meetings with airlines to provide guidance on how these rules are supposed to work in practice.

But it also says something about the airline industry and its legacy practices that some aspects of this rule appear so difficult to implement.

The carriers, for example, claim that it is not yet possible for them to comply with a directive that the baggage policies and fees of the marketing carrier should govern the entire itinerary of codeshare flights.

They claim that "in almost all cases" their airport check-in systems are not capable of searching for and applying the baggage policies of their own codeshare partners. What an admission!

We wouldn't expect gate agents at, say, Hawaiian Airlines to have the baggage policies of Air Namibia at their fingertips, but if two carriers are codesharing, why wouldn't they?

Codesharing has been going on for the better part of three decades. If the DOT has never required these carriers to at least know what their partners are doing for all of these years, what's another six months?

 

While we're on the subject, travel sellers should be taking an interest in how the DOT interprets and administers some of the rules it has created.

One of the airline industry's complaints is that the DOT enacted a double standard with regard to the kind of advice that passengers get regarding baggage fees.

On direct bookings, carriers will be required to incorporate into the e-ticket confirmation the specific baggage allowances and fees that apply to that particular itinerary.

On bookings made though online agents or other distribution channels, however, it will be sufficient for the e-ticket confirmation to include a hyperlink to a page on the carrier's website containing a general explanation of its baggage fees and policies.

Leaving aside the airline claim that the DOT's requirement is impractical, we note that it marks one of the few examples in recent history where the government has mandated that airlines provide a higher level of service to passengers who book direct.

This could have troublesome consequences for third-party distribution if consumers come to value this information as greatly as the DOT apparently does.

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