Ray LaHood: “We’re in the era of full disclosure”

In part two of their interview with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Christopher Elliott and Charlie Leocha explore the new tarmac-delay restrictions for airlines and pending rules for the disclosure of surcharges, such as baggage fees, that have spread through the airline industry. Here’s the first part.

The number of enforcement actions are up at the department’s Aviation Enforcement Office. Did you go down there and light a fire under them?

I think that people in the department understood when I came on board that safety was number one and we were going to look out for consumers. People knew I was a member of Congress and that I was co-sponsor of the Passenger Bill of Rights. Once we put out the tarmac rule, that sent a message out all over these two buildings and all over the FAA buildings who we care about.

I would like to congratulate you on your rulemaking concerning tarmac delays. I have seen where the airlines have been whining a lot and have requested exceptions to the current rulemaking. They are huffing and puffing and threatening to cancel flights. They can’t have it both ways. For years, it was a minor problem and now it will cause a collapse of the industry.

I can make an argument that our tarmac rules are about safety. How safe can it be for a passenger to sit inside of an airplane inside of that steel tube without access to a bathroom, without access to food, without access to water? To me that’s as much of a safety issues and a health issue. It’s a health/safety issue.

I’ve read that they will have to go back to the gate. Fine, you know what happens when they get back to the gate? You can rebook you flight, you can go home and rest and get on a flight the next morning or sit in the terminal and make a decision. You’re not cooped up in an airplane with out food, water and a lavatory.

I take it then that these airlines asking for exemptions at places like JFK are not going to get them.

Well, you know my philosophy on this. We’ll wait to see what happens.

What was the reaction to the tarmac rule? Did you hear back from any airlines on that?

Just what I’ve read. I’ve had a couple of CEOs in here whining to me about it. You know what I said to them? First of all, start looking out for your passengers. This is good for passengers. This will help you. This will help provide good service to your customers.

I was so struck in January. I took two of my nine grandchildren to Disney World. You know what happens at Disney World? The customer is always right. It like they treat you like you are the long-lost relative. Now, if the airline industry and other industries treated their customers that way, we wouldn’t be having these problems.

Why don’t you think they … ?

That part I don’t know.

I get the impression that the guiding principle in enforcement is that airlines are deregulated and the government will take a hands-off approach, particularly to aviation enforcement dealing with consumer protection. Does deregulation means hands off, or not?

I’ll go back to what I said originally. I think that our obligation is to make sure that when somebody gets on a plane that he gets to whre they’re going safely, that they can avoid delays. I think that on my watch, that will be my number one priority. If people want to accuse us of trying to be over-regulatory in the airline industry, it will be in the name of safety. I make no apologies for that.

What do you think passengers are concerned about besides safety that the DOT can affect?

Number one, people are concerned about is what it costs to get on a flight. Let’s face it, when you book a flight, the first thing you think about is how much is it going to cost me. If I have to carry a bag on, what’s it going to cost me? I think that’s the first thing you think about.

When I flew back to Peoria with my wife, I have to pay for our fare to go back there. I thought about what it’s going to cost me. That was the first question. How about if we take four bags with us? What are they going to cost us? That’s the second question. I mean it’s pretty common sense stuff, really.

Was it easy to find out how much your four bags were going to cost?

The truth is, I did not know that until I got up to the counter. You don’t know, really, if there is a weight problem. Sometimes you know, obviously. But if you travel with my wife you don’t know.

How do you make them tell you?

I think we have an obligation here at DOT to do that. We continue to look at those fares. That’s part of our job to do that.

Some congressional staffers have raised the point that forcing airlines to reveal fees at the same time that they reveal airfares is a return to regulation.

In Congress we are going in completely the opposite direction. Congress just passed a law saying that on your credit card now it’s full disclosure. My credit card bill now shows ten years out what it will cost you if you paid this or that. That’s the direction that we should be going for consumers when you buy an airline ticket, or that Amtrak should have when you buy a train ticket. Full disclosure. What are all the fees? What it going to cost you.

We’re in a new era. We’re in the era of full disclosure.

(Photo: merfam/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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