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
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
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
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
"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
"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.