A cross-section of consumer advocacy groups has joined together to protest the newly reconstituted make-up of the Transportation Department's Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee.

On Nov. 15, DOT secretary Elaine Chao announced that she had appointed Frances Smith, an adjunct fellow at libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), to fill the committee seat representing consumer interests. 

Chao also appointed Patricia Vercelli, general counsel of the trade group Airlines for America, to the seat representing airline interests and Maryland secretary of transportation Pete Rahm as the committee's state or local government representative. 

Finally, she re-appointed Indianapolis Airport Authority executive director Mario Rodriguez to the committee seat representing airport operators. 

In a letter to Chao last week, the nine consumer groups trained their most intense ire on the selection of Smith, saying that the CEI has deep ties to industry.

"There is no mention of the public interest, consumer welfare, or even the word "consumer" in CEI's mission statement," the consumer groups said. 

On its website, the CEI describes itself as, "a nonprofit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty."

Smith, the consumer groups said, has no record working on consumer-protection matters related to airlines. 

Smith is set to replace Charlie Leocha as the committee's consumer advocate representative. Leocha is the president of Travelers United, which is one of the groups that signed the letter to Chao. 

The consumer groups also took umbrage with Chao's selection of Rahm as the state government representative, arguing that the Maryland DOT has little to no involvement in aviation consumer protection. Rahm, a Republican, is set replace New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, on the committee. 

The consumer groups told Chao that with the new appointments, the committee's make-up would violate the requirement in the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act that committees be "fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed."

The DOT did not respond to emails in recent weeks about the Smith appointment and did respond Tuesday afternoon to a broader inquiry about the consumer groups' letter to Chao. 

In a Nov. 28 press release, CEI president Kent Lassman called Smith "a formidable, accomplished advocate for consumer empowerment."

"CEI is proud of her record as a consumer advocate and we look forward to hearing her strong voice for consumers on the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee," he said.

In the same release, Smith vowed to use her seat to champion consumer interests.

"In my many years of dealing with policy issues, I have worked hard to identify and implement public policies that empower consumers to make informed decisions in their everyday lives and in their own best interests," she said. 

The Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee is next scheduled to meet on Jan. 6. On the agenda are discussions about the transparency of airline fees and involuntary changes to itineraries.


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