During Elwell’s Tenure, the Trump Administration Has Aggressively Rolled Back Safety and Consumer Protections at the Behest of the Airline Industry
Washington, DC— Today, Democracy Forward sued the Trump administration for unlawfully withholding records that would shed light on whether and the extent to which former airline lobbyist and current Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration Daniel Elwell has communicated with and influenced policy decisions that benefit the airline industry, including his former employer–airline industry lobbying group Airlines for America (“A4A”). Mr. Elwell first joined the Trump administration in 2017 as Senior Advisor on Aviation for Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Prior to his appointment, he was a Senior Vice President for Safety, Security, and Operations for A4A.
Over the course of Mr. Elwell’s tenure, the administration has delayed, postponed, or withdrawn consumer safety and air traveler protections, many of which were publicly opposed by A4A. These actions include:
Rolling back the “refund rule” requiring airlines to disclose hidden baggage fees, and freezing a rule that forced airlines to refund baggage fees when bags are misplaced, a decision celebrated by A4A. A4A has long criticized the refund rule, and after Mr. Elwell entered the Trump administration, the group raised the rule in a letter to DOT outlining regulations they wanted delayed.
Halting an effort to crack down on airlines that block consumers from price shopping for lower fares, a practice which could cost passengers nearly $7 billion annually. While Mr. Elwell was a senior executive at A4A, the group unsuccessfully urged DOT not to pursue regulations governing airline attempts to block third-party ticket selling websites. A4A asked DOT again in February 2017, by which period Elwell had begun serving on a deregulatory task force within the department. Weeks later, the Trump administration complied.
Delaying a Wheelchair Rule designed to protect disabled air travelers. The rule required airlines to record and report data when they lose or damage wheelchairs and scooters. DOT claimed the delay was necessary due to implementation “challenges” faced by the airline industry. However, the only evidence of these challenges DOT presented was a single, three-sentence email the agency received from A4A.
“First the Trump administration hired an airline lobbyist, then it advanced the airline industry’s agenda by rolling back protections for air travelers,” said Karianne Jones, Democracy Forward Counsel. “Transparency rules exist to expose exactly this kind of situation, and the administration needs to follow the law and disclose any records.”
A separate investigation by Democracy Forward revealed that Elwell sought to curry favor with the airline industry, including an email where he praised United Airlines officials in the wake of the airline’s controversial altercation with a passenger. Under the Trump administration, airline industry lobbying – in which A4A is a major player – has greatly increased.
Democracy Forward submitted the Freedom of Information Act request to the FAA and DOT in June 2018. The agencies have not responded, in violation of federal law.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.