Under Secretary Foxx, the Department of Transportation (DOT) hasn’t really been prone to take any action on anything airline-related, for the most part. But this week, we actually have a couple of final rules that have come out, and DOT is really patting itself on the back. The reality, however, is these don’t do all that much. Once again DOT is kicking the can down the road regarding more major issues. Let’s take a look at what has been done (and what hasn’t).
Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections III (read the text)
When Roman numerals are involved, you know it must be a big deal… except its not. This is the third installment in the long-standing “enhancing protections” series, but it doesn’t do all that much. What IS in here, however, I actually like.
First, and in my opinion, most important, involves changes in reporting from DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report, where you see on-time performance, mishandled baggage, etc. Today, it’s required that airlines that have more than 1 percent of scheduled domestic revenue have to report their stats. It seems arbitrary, but this was chosen way back in the 1980s. Unfortunately it also excludes a lot of airlines. So, DOT is going to change this (beginning for travel in 2018) to require any airline with more than .5% of revenue to report. That seems goofy, but it’s meant to reduce the burden on small businesses. On its own I don’t like this, but there’s another change that makes this far more palatable.
That change? If you look at the report today it only includes information from the operating carrier. So if you look at United, that’s not entirely helpful since half the flights, give or take, are operated by regionals that report separately, if they’re big enough to report at all.
The new plan will roll up those regional numbers under the big carrier’s numbers. So SkyWest, for example, will have some shown as United, some Delta, etc. What if the regional is too small and doesn’t have to report (like PSA, Compass, and more)? Well, the big airline partner will have to report for them. Problem solved.
That means the only significant US airline that doesn’t have to report is Sun Country. (And whether that’s significant or not is debatable.) But I sure am looking forward to seeing Allegiant’s numbers, aren’t you?
And that’s most of what’s happening in this rule. There’s also one thing clarifying how and when codeshare flights have to be disclosed. And lastly there’s something that prohibits a travel website, whether an airline or an online travel agent, to bias results without declaring that they bias them. I really doubt that’s going to have much of an impact, but you know, it’s not a bad thing either. That is the entire extent of the rule, but there is another that accompanied this one…
Reporting of Data for Mishandled Baggage and Wheelchairs and Scooters Transported in Aircraft Cargo Compartments (read the rule)
This rule has been, and I’m not kidding, 5 years in the making. So you think it might be some monumental piece of work right? Not really. This is also related to the Air Travel Consumer Report. Starting on January 1, 2018, airlines will have to report mishandled baggage a bit differently than they do today. They’ll also have to start reporting statistics on mishandled wheelchairs and scooters.
Today mishandled baggage is reported in a very strange way. DOT takes the total number of mishandled bags and divides by the total number of passengers. That doesn’t make much sense. What I really care about is if x number of bags are checked, what percentage of those were mishandled? It gives you a better idea of how good the airlines are at handling bags. Today you have airlines like Southwest which check a ton of bags, because they don’t have bag fees. So they get dinged because they have a higher percentage of people checking, but it doesn’t say how good they are at handling those bags.
The new rule is going to take the number of mishandled bags and divide by the total number of enplaned bags domestically. This is kind of strange in a different way, and it’s different than they originally had planned. Previously they had said if someone checked a bag, that would count once, but now they’re saying that every time that bag boards a flight, that counts again. This was at the airlines’ request to make it easier to track (think about interline bags). To me, I don’t like it. I’d rather know if someone checks a bag, what percentage of those are mishandled? Now if you have a connection that will count twice in the denominator. And that seems like an odd distortion.
Regarding wheelchairs and scooters being counted, that’s fine. I don’t imagine we’re going to see much of this kind of stuff.
Refunding Baggage Fees for Delayed Checked Bags (read the proposed rule)
This particular bit should come as no surprise, but this isn’t a final rule. This is just DOT starting to gather information about how to handle refunds for paid checked bags that are delayed to their final destination. Does this sound familiar? It’s because this was required by the FAA extension, and I wrote about it when that passed. So this is just DOT doing what it has to do… slowly.
Exploring Industry Practices on Distribution and Display of Airline Fare, Schedule, and Availability Information (read the request for info)
Buried underneath any actual action, this one is actually a big one that could have wide-ranging implications. But for now, it’s just a request for information.
The question being asked here is whether airlines should be forced to allow their schedules and fares to be displayed and sold by any third-party website and whether they have the ability to restrict any of that information. From an airline perspective, they feel they should have the right to sell their products through any third party, or through none, as they choose. On the other side, you have people who still think this is a regulated industry and want to treat it like a utility. They say this should be publicly available for everyone and it’s in the public’s interest to make it so that any third-party website can get full information.
Where DOT stands, it’s not entirely clear. But I’m certainly in favor of the airlines having control over this information, and they should be able to restrict who sells their product just like any other private business. But as usual, airlines are treated differently than other businesses, and that’s why we never know how this is going to turn out.