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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

Politicians Leading the Charge to Help Those Frustrated Frequent Fliers : Legislation: A newly introduced bill would sharply increase airline liability for flight cancellations and lost luggage, and create a federal 'passenger advocate.'

November 18, 1990|PETER S. GREENBERG

It seems to happen every year. More and more passengers feel abused by their travel experience. They complain. They write letters. But nothing seems to get better.

Some of the loudest complainers have been a group of frequent travelers known as U.S. Congressmen. As a result, in the past few years, a number of senators and representatives have proposed specific legislation aimed at curbing some of the travel abuses--delays, hotel overbooking, outrageous long-distance phone charges, lost baggage and high air fares in markets where there is little competition.

However, in virtually every case, the proposed legislation has either died a quiet death in committee or gone down to defeat on a floor vote. Even in California, legislation aimed at curbing hotel overbooking without proper guest compensation was vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian.

Now comes a new crop of travel legislation. As members of Congress return to work after the recent elections, a number of pending bills await their deliberation and vote. They include:

--a bill that would prohibit travel agents from using airline-owned computer reservations systems. These systems are usually supplied to travel agents by the larger carriers. The systems, it has been charged, discriminate in favor of the carriers that own them during the reservations process;

--a bill that would allow the Federal Trade Commission to monitor and police airline advertisements. This is an ongoing problem. A number of carriers have been accused over the years by various state attorneys general, consumer groups and individual travelers of promoting misleading fares and seat availability.

Perhaps the strongest of the new bills was introduced shortly before Congress recessed in August.

Proposed by Rep. Don Ritter (R-Pa.), HR 5453 is called the Airline Passenger Defense Act. Ritter introduced it with an impressive 109 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.

"In proposing this bill," says Ritter, "I'm trying to reduce the aggravation of flying. And I certainly have experience in this area. This bill comes out of the trauma I've suffered over the years as a passenger.

"Members of Congress are accustomed to traveling and to getting the shaft as much as anybody. Airline service has become the ultimate oxymoron."

Specifically, Ritter's bill:

--prohibits flight cancellations within 72 hours of departure except for narrowly defined weather or mechanical problems;

--requires that if an airline does cancel a flight, it must compensate passengers in the same way as if the passengers had been involuntarily denied boarding (or "bumped");

--requires airlines to notify passengers of departure or arrival delays of 15 minutes or more;

--penalizes an airline if that airline's on-time performance for specific scheduled flights falls below 70% in any consecutive three-month period;

--standardizes lost/misplaced baggage-claim forms among airlines and doubles the current maximum airline liability from $1,250 to $2,500 per incident for lost baggage;

--requires airlines to satisfactorily handle lost, damaged or misplaced baggage claims within 30 days of each incident or pay a $1,000 penalty to the passenger over and above the amount filed on the passenger's reimbursement claim;

--would establish an Office of Airline Passenger Advocacy within the U.S. Department of Transportation. The office would be headed by an assistant secretary of transportation and would provide airline passengers with a toll-free number to handle complaints, initiate investigations and ultimately enforce consumer regulations provided by this bill and others.

"I think this is the best of all bills of its kind," says Ritter, "because of that advocacy office with its regulatory capacity. A lot of bills about airline service get introduced because someone is angry. It is an emotional moment. But this bill has teeth."

Ritter insists that he is not trying to place undue government controls on the airlines.

"I don't think you can put the genie back in the bottle and re-regulate this complex institution," he says. "But what we're all seeing out there is virtually no competition among airlines on some routes or in some strong hub cities.

"What this bill does is force the airlines to provide service even if they're not in direct competition with another airline."

Not surprisingly, the airline industry opposes Ritter's bill.

"We've seen similar kinds of legislation before," says Steve Hayes, spokesman for the Air Transport Association of America, the main airline lobbying group in Washington. "And in the past, these bills have failed because they provide for increased government oversight and involvement but no real solutions to the general problems that passengers face."

"Right now," Hayes adds, "while many problems still exist, the number of passenger complaints filed at the Department of Transportation are actually down, and I think Congress is aware of that."

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