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Trump Administration's New Regulation Favors Airlines At Travelers' Expense


When a government entity wants to make a big change with little public notice, they do it late on Friday - Even better if that Friday is on a holiday weekend. Well, that is what happened last week, the day after Thanksgiving, when the Trump administration quietly announced a new regulation that appears to favor airlines at the expense of consumers. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The press release landed in my inbox at 3:14 Friday afternoon. The headline - the Department of Transportation issues final rule providing clarity on unfair and deceptive practices in aviation consumer protection. And clarity is a good thing, right? The release assures us that the new rule will, quote, "benefit the public and regulated entities by providing greater transparency and predictability." But there's a catch. Consumer advocates say the rule redefines unfair and deceptive practices more favorably for the airlines, sets up roadblocks to pursuing complaints, and it makes it more difficult to enact future consumer protections.

JOHN BREYAULT: The DOT decided to offer a last-minute gift to the airlines in the dying days of the Trump administration.

SCHAPER: That's John Breyault, who's with the National Consumers League.

BREYAULT: With this new rule, the DOT is really putting itself in a straitjacket in terms of its ability to protect consumers.

SCHAPER: Breyault and others say the new rule makes airline passengers more vulnerable to unreasonable flight delays and misleading information about fares and fees with little recourse. Breyault says the DOT already is little more than a paper tiger, rarely acting on airline consumer complaints. He points to the tens of thousands of them during the pandemic over airlines refusing to pay refunds for canceled flights.

BREYAULT: And the DOT has offered some weak warnings about this, but has not brought a single enforcement action despite the fact that they have seen record numbers of complaints from consumers.

SCHAPER: The airlines requested this rule change. And their lobbying group, Airlines for America, says in a statement that the new rule will produce widespread and lasting benefits for air travelers, airlines and the economy. Gary Leff writes the View from the Wing blog about air travel.

GARY LEFF: The DOT isn't wrong to say that what constitutes unfair and deceptive, with respect to their rulemaking, has not been well defined in the past. I'm simply suggesting that they are adopting a fairly narrow view of what that is.

SCHAPER: And Leff says that's a win for the airlines. Consumer groups will urge the incoming Biden administration to roll back the new regulations and enact new airline consumer protections, but the new rules may actually make even that more difficult.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.