Airlines and the Trump Administration

Last week President Trump attempted to take credit for improving airline safety.  The truth? His Administration has quietly waged an aggressive campaign to roll back safety and consumer protections at the behest of the airline industry:

—President Trump’s “Regulatory Reform Task Force” at the Department of Transportation is targeting the amount of training hours pilots must log in the air before flying commercial flights. In 2009, the deadly Colgan Air crash in New York prompted Congress to enact stronger flight safety protections, including a requirement that pilots log more than 1,500 hours of flight time to obtain commercial certification. In 2013, the requirement was finalized in an FAA rule. Now, President Trump’s “Regulatory Reform Task Force” on transportation is attempting to expand the narrow exceptions to the 1,500-hour requirement—like traditional college and military-based classroom training programs—FAA rules already allow. One example of the Trump Administration’s new exceptions: Classroom-based programs run directly by the airline industry.

SIDEBAR: In 2013, the airline industry unsuccessfully pushed FAA to water down the 1,500 hour rule in exactly this way. In rejecting the proposal, FAA warned of the “potential risks such a dramatic departure from traditional certification and experience requirements could present.” As Captain Sully Sullenberger said, “Trust me, there is no training substitute for actual flying time and real-world experience. Efforts to reduce flying hours fly in the face of evidence and logic, and put millions of lives at risk.”

—The Administration not only rolled back a rule requiring airlines to disclose hidden baggage fees, they also froze a rule forcing airlines to refund those fees when bags are misplaced. In 2016, Congress passed a law requiring the Department of Transportation (DOT) to issue a rule mandating that airlines provide an “automated refund” on checked bags airlines misplace for over 12 hours. The move was hailed by airline passenger advocates as an “amazing win for consumers,” and in October 2016, the FAA proposed a rule to implement the crackdown on airlines. But before the new protections were finalized, the Trump Administration pumped the brakes, placing the proposal on an indefinite hold.

SIDEBAR: In getting the Administration to freeze the protections, the airline industry had a man on the inside: Daniel Elwell, a senior Administration official rumored to be in line to head FAA. Before entering the Administration, Elwell was a lobbyist for American Airlines and a senior executive at Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade group. A4A has long criticized the refund rule, and after Elwell entered the Trump Administration, the group raised the rule in a letter to DOT outlining regulations they wanted delayed.

—President Trump halted an effort to crack down on airlines that block consumers from price shopping for lower fares, a practice estimated to cost passengers $6.7 billion each year. Major airlines often block third-party search engines, such Expedia and Tripadvisor, from displaying certain ticket availability and pricing information on their websites. By limiting the ability of consumers to comparison shop for affordable fares, airlines have been able to boost ticket prices (and profits) by more than 10 percent. Recognizing this concerning trend, DOT initiated a rulemaking, and in October 2016, requested comments to inform development of rules potentially prohibiting the airline industry practice. But in March 2017, the Trump Administration abruptly suspended the rulemaking, claiming the “President’s appointees” needed an “opportunity to review and consider this action.”

SIDEBAR: One such “appointee” helping lead DOT’s deregulation efforts at the time the rulemaking was stopped in its tracks? Dan Elwell. While Elwell was a senior executive at A4A prior to entering the Administration, the group unsuccessfully urged DOT not to pursue regulations governing airline attempts to block third-party websites. A4A asked DOT again in February 2017. Weeks later, the Trump Administration complied.

—The Administration broke the terms of an agreement DOT made with disability advocates to make airplane bathrooms more accessible. You may have noticed: airplane bathrooms have been getting smaller. The growing prevalence of inaccessible bathrooms on single-aisle planes, allowed under existing regulations, poses particular challenges for travelers with disabilities. In 2016, after years of working with disability advocates and airlines, DOT announced a preliminary plan “to fully address the challenges persons with mobility impairments face when traveling on single aisle aircraft with inaccessible lavatories.” As part of the plan, DOT committed to “issue a notice of proposed rulemaking based on this agreement in July 2017.” (It’s still on their website). That deadline has come and gone, and the rulemaking has since been deprioritized by the Trump Administration.

SIDEBAR: It’s not the first time the Trump Administration targeted protections for passengers with disabilities. In March, DOT unlawfully rolled back a rule that would have required airlines to report data on lost and damaged wheelchairs to help travelers make informed and safe travel decisions. The Administration’s actions are currently being challenged in court by Paralyzed Veterans of America, an advocacy group that also helped develop the lavatory accessibility proposal in 2016.

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