“No text message or phone call is worth the risk”

On a late winter afternoon, I was run off the New Jersey Turnpike by a delivery truck whose driver was talking on a cell phone.

No one was seriously injured in the collision, but I’ll never forget the loud “pop” of metal against glass and seeing the truck flip over and grind to a halt in a shower of sparks next to my badly-dented car.

When it happened 17 years ago, there were no laws against talking on a cellphone and driving. But thanks in no small part to a consumer-friendly Transportation Department — the most consumer-friendly ever, perhaps — there are. The latest is a proposed new safety regulation that would prohibit interstate commercial truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating a commercial motor vehicle.
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The DOT hears our SOS

It turns out that all the negative things that happened to air travelers in 2010 – invasive body scans, multiplying fees, erupting volcanoes – were offset by at least one positive change: an increasingly passenger-friendly Transportation Department.

The federal government introduced new rules to help air travelers and enforced the regulations already on the books with a fervor unlike any administration in recent memory.

“Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is leading the first consumer-centered DOT in the history of commercial aviation,” says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel interests. “And he’s doing so in a very thoughtful and sophisticated manner.”

In the spring, the agency imposed a controversial rule that effectively limited tarmac delays to three hours. A series of proposed consumer protection initiatives that would, among other things, strengthen airlines’ customer service requirements, force carriers to display airfares and optional fees to allow better side-by-side price comparisons, and boost fines for overbooking were proposed over the summer and are expected to become finalized in early 2011. If approved, they could change the way Americans fly more than any government action since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.
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Great idea! US government to require rear-mounted video cameras in cars by 2014

I almost ran over my daughter.

It happened a few years ago, before she started walking, but the memory is still fresh in my mind. Somehow, she’d crawled out of the house, and I didn’t see her until I’d backed my car out of the garage. I’d come within inches of crushing her.

Let me tell you, there’s no worse feeling — none at all — than that sickening combination of relief and dread.

Thank God, I missed her! What if I hadn’t missed her?

Well, now the government wants to do something about the issue, and I, for one, think it’s about time. The Department of Transportation today proposed a new safety regulation that would help eliminate blind zones behind vehicles that can hide the presence of pedestrians, especially young children and the elderly.
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Travel agency whacked with $200,000 fine for offering “free” flights with Sandals vacations

The best things in life may be free, but that apparently doesn’t extend to the airfare on your all-inclusive vacation, at least according to the government.

The Transportation Department this morning fined Unique Vacations $200,000 for promoting “free” airfares in connection with its Sandals packages, when, in fact, customers would sometimes be required to pay airline fuel surcharges.

Here’s the consent order (PDF).

That’s illegal, says the government. Any advertising that states a price for air transportation or an air tour is considered to be an unfair or deceptive practice unless the price stated is the entire price to be paid by the customer to the air carrier or ticket agent for such air transportation, tour or tour component, according to the Transportation Department.
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Delta fined $100,000 for misleading baggage brochure

Federal law says an airline can’t limit its liability for lost, damaged or delayed baggage to less than $3,300 per passenger. But if you’re flying on Delta Air Lines, you might have thought otherwise.

Even after the Transportation Department issued an industry notice (.DOC) last October, reminding airlines that they couldn’t cap their compensation, Delta allegedly distributed a pamphlet that said it “will not authorize any expense reimbursement” when a passenger’s delayed baggage is expected to reach the passenger within 24 hours.

The brochure also said the carrier’s liability is capped at $25 per day “for necessities after the first 24 hours up to a maximum of USD 125 per ticketed customer” while a passenger is away from his or her permanent residence.

The government has fined Delta $100,000 for distributing the brochure months after its advisory. Here’s the consent order (.PDF).
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Now that the tarmac delay rule is “working as planned” should the government shorten the leash?

That’s a question a lot of airline observers may be asking themselves after today’s DOT report (PDF) that there was just one tarmac delay exceeding three hours in August 2010.

And look at this chart (above). What point is reporting this data to the flying public when there’s no meaningful data to report?

The Transportation Department is doing a well-deserved victory lap on tarmac delays. In today’s news release, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood summed up his department’s reasons to celebrate:

These numbers show that the tarmac delay rule is protecting passengers from being trapped indefinitely aboard an airplane – with little or no increase in canceled flights.

Also, it shows that the hard work the airlines are putting into implementing the rule is paying off. With the summer travel season behind us, it appears that the rule is working as planned.

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Should airlines be allowed to trade slots?

Whose slots are they, anyway?

That’s a fair question, given airlines’ recent efforts to swap slots – government permission to take off and land at a particular time – in Washington and New York.

You may not realize it, but slots can affect how much you pay for a flight. And the decisions made about landing permissions are hardly abstract. They will almost certainly have a lasting effect on competition and airfares, experts predict.

Catching a plane from a slot-controlled airport can be pricey. Fliers from Washington’s slot-limited Reagan National Airport paid an average fare of $373 for the first quarter of 2010, the latest period for which figures are available. At slot-restricted Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., the average fare was $423. By comparison, the average domestic airfare was just $328.

The reason? Slots – specifically a lack of them – drive airfares higher because competition is capped.
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El Al fined by government for “deceptive” luggage reimbursement rules

Article 17 of the Montreal Convention holds airlines liable for loss of or damage to baggage, as long as it took place when it was in their possession. No exceptions.

It looks like El Al had a creative — and ultimately, flawed — interpretation.

At least that’s how the Transportation Department sees it. And the DOT has the power to fine El Al, which is exactly what it just did — to the tune of $30,000. Here’s the consent order (PDF).
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Tarmac-delay rule gives air travelers more respect

If you’re afraid of being trapped in a parked plane on your next trip, stop worrying.

Only three flights were delayed more than three hours in July, the latest month reported by the Transportation Department. All the incidents happened on the evening of July 23, when a line of “very nasty” thunderstorms swept through Chicago, according to American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely.
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Air travelers, let your voices be heard

The federal government is giving travelers an extra month to comment on proposed new consumer rules for airline passengers.

You now have until Sept. 23 to let the Transportation Department know what you think of the regulations, which will affect everything from how an airfare is quoted to whether peanuts will be served on a plane.

Even with my God-given gift for hyperbole, it would be hard to understate the importance of this initiative for air travelers, which is why I’m writing about it again.

The earlier column drew an unusually large number of responses, the most common one being, “What’s the Web address for Regulation Room?”

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Government says airlines “not required” to refund taxes on nonrefundable tickets

Kirk Miller knew his nonrefundable US Airways tickets was lost when he canceled his flight, but like many air travelers, he wondered about the taxes. Could he get those back?

“It is my understanding that although the fare is not refundable, the taxes included in the price of an airline ticket are refundable,” he says. “Airlines act as tax collectors, but they are supposed to hold the taxes in escrow until you actually travel, when they pay the government(s).”


Not exactly, it turns out. A US Airways representative told him the taxes were also nonrefundable. He sent a brief, polite email to the airline, and was again rebuffed.
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Did the airline industry fund controversial tarmac delay study?

A new study by a team of aviation consultants, which claims the government’s new tarmac delay rule will cost the flying public $3.9 billion during the next two decades, is making waves in the aviation industry and beyond.

The Transportation Department yesterday issued a rare rebuttal, in which it called the study “questionable.”

The numbers used by the consultants, it said, were “far too narrow” to yield defensible conclusions about future airline trends. “Further,” it added, “the data reported in May 2010 does not support the industry consultants’ claims about rising numbers of airline cancellations.”

Surely the analysts must have known they were stretching things a little when they based their conclusions on one month of cancellation data. So why do it?

Maybe it was the money.
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How to turn customers into critics? It’s in the fine print

As a lawyer, Sam Wyrick is no stranger to fine print. So when Spirit Airlines canceled his flight during its recent strike, he did what any respectable attorney would do: He read Spirit’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between the airline and its passengers.

Unfortunately, so had the airline employee he dealt with. And Spirit apparently interpreted its own contract very differently.

“Two Spirit representatives — one on the ground at LaGuardia and one at a call center, had said if Spirit canceled our flight, we would be called and rebooked, on another airline if necessary,” he remembers.

But after it notified him that his flight to Myrtle Beach, S.C., was grounded, the airline changed its tune. It offered him a flight credit and a $100 voucher. (Never mind that Section 9.2 of Spirit’s contract suggests it owes him a refund.)
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