Consumer Issues: Fall 2020

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

If you’re planning to travel this fall or early winter, you should probably be aware of how the major consumer issues in travel are faring—and where they might be going in the next few months.

Air ticket change fees. As I noted a few weeks ago, what many see as the number one consumer pain point—high airline ticket-change fees—has temporarily abated. Most big US airlines have voluntarily waived change fees on tickets for upcoming flights or new bookings on most or all fares, and a few European and Asian lines are doing the same. Most lines exclude their lowest “basic” fares, which remain “use it or lose it.” United has promised that its no-change-fee policy will be permanent; others aren’t saying, but have not announced any dates for re-imposition of fees. The big problem, however, remains: Unless the airline cancels the flight, you won’t get your money back. Instead, you’ll get a credit toward a future flight good for a year or more.

The related problem of getting legally-mandated refunds on flights cancelled by an airline has also apparently eased. Even the most recalcitrant lines now seem to be issuing cash refunds—reluctantly—although much more slowly than the mandated seen working days.

Family flight seating. Unfortunately, I’ve seen no progress from the Department of Transportation (DoT) requiring airlines to allow adjacent or nearby seating for family groups, reserved in advance without extra seat-assignment fees. Congress has told DoT to do something, but the current anti-consumer DoT seems content to stonewall this reasonable demand.

Covid standards. A group of the leading US consumer advocates has officially asked the DoT to develop and implement standard rules for Covid protection in air travel. That would include when and where travelers must wear masks; when, where, and how testing might be required, along with other ways of safeguarding travelers against the virus. Currently, most airlines have adopted their own policies, and almost all the big lines now require masks. Still, uniformity, backed by government rule, is a good idea, and for the most part, any DoT requirement would probably just duplicate what airlines are doing, anyhow.

737MAX safety. Although Boeing and the DoT seem to be heading toward getting the 737MAX back in the air before the end of the year, a few consumer advocates are not convinced the proposed fixes are adequate. Some of the opposition is based on lack of full information rather than actual doubt about the fix, but it’s out there. My take remains that the 737MAX will be back by the end of the year, and if you’re still wary, you can check the type of plane to be used before you buy a ticket.

WYSIWYG pricing. It’s still “what you see is what you get” with airfares: The expected airline attack on the DoT requirement for full-fare advertising hasn’t surfaced yet, so that rule remains in effect. But neither the Federal Trade Commission nor individual states have made any progress in requiring hotels to post all-up pricing. As I noted last week, Kayak is the only online search system I know that allows you to specify all-up pricing from the first screen, and it remains your top choice for accurate price comparisons.

Other issues. Consumer advocates have a long list of other desirable changes to the travel buying system. Among them:

  • Removing boiler plate language that requires travel buyers to waive their basic contract rights to redress in the event of a dispute—specifying arbitration as the only way to solve a dispute, and preventing buyers from entering class-action lawsuits.
  • Requiring “what happens when we don’t” language in cruiseline, hotel, tour operator, and rental car contracts that obligates them to provide workable alternatives and compensation when they fail to honor a reservation, itinerary, or other promised element or feature.
  • Giving consumers local-court access in the event of a legal dispute with an airline.

Clearly, these improvements would require government action, which is highly unlikely for now. We’re in it for the long haul.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s rail travel website at Rail-Guru.com.)

(c) 2020 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.– Sept. 28, 2020

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