Costello: “The traveling public cannot be ignored any longer”

Jerry Costello is the co-sponsor of the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2009, which contains several important new rules designed to help air travelers. I asked the Illinois congressman, who is also the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, about passenger rights and the prospects that new rules would be adopted by the Senate and signed into law.

Q: The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index gives the domestic airline industry an average score of 64 our of 100 — essentially, a failing grade. What do you think needs to be done to fix the industry?

Costello: Ultimately, service will be as good as an individual airline wants it to be. The economic pressures of running an airline – which hit rock bottom after 9/11, through the boom period of the middle of the decade, to another lull currently – will always be there. It is a cyclical business. The key is to be able to focus on the customer experience at all times, and Congress can help emphasize these issues.

Q: The FAA Reauthorization Act contains a number of provisions that could potentially help passengers. If they become law, which of the new rules do you think will improve air travel the most?

Costello: Short-term, I believe the emergency contingency plans for airlines and airports to better prepare for long tarmac delays can have an impact on the worst of these situations. We won’t eliminate all of these situations, but I am hopeful the horror stories will be dramatically reduced. Long-term, empowering the Joint Planning and Development Office to really drive the NextGen process, and providing the funding to do it, will improve the system for everyone.

Q: In a statement following the passage of the Act, you called the new law “long overdue.” Can you elaborate on that? When it comes to passenger rights, how long overdue are these new laws? Why do you think it’s taken so long to get here?

Costello: The bill is overdue because we started the reauthorization process in 2007. The House passed a bill similar to H.R. 915 that year, but the Senate did not.

It could be argued that the passengers’ rights provisions were more timely in 2007, coming off of the very public tarmac delay incidents in the beginning of the year and a very busy summer travel season, and the fact that this year the number of flights have been dramatically reduced and some improvements in passenger satisfaction have been recorded. However, they are still extremely important, for as I mentioned above, this is a cyclical business, and the problems of tarmac delays and congestion and delays still need attention.

Q: I want to ask you about one section of the bill that’s gotten a lot of attention, regarding airline emergency contingency plans. The current bill would require airlines to come up with a plan to provide food, water, restroom facilities, cabin ventilation, and access to medical treatment for passengers onboard an aircraft at the airport that is on the ground for an extended period of time without access to the terminal. It would also allow passengers to deplane following excessive delays. What is an “excessive delay”?

Costello: Trying to determine the precise answer to that question is the wrong approach to the problem. What we have seen clearly through the hearing process and anecdotal evidence is that this varies depending who you ask. For one traveler, half an hour can seem interminable, and for another, far longer is OK, if you get the traveler where he or she needs to go that evening. Most would agree that beyond three hours is becoming excessive, but what if the plane can leave five minutes later?

It is also clear that airlines and airports need some flexibility in dealing with these situations, because they are not one size fits all. What H.R. 915 does is make sure that the proper planning is taking place, that food, water and basic necessities are being met while making preparations to get passengers off of the plane in the worst situations. If these plans are not made, fines will be issued.

Q: I asked an executive at one of the major airlines about passenger rights last week, and he said he believes many of the issues raised by your bill have already been addressed by the airline. If that’s true, then why are these passenger rights provisions needed?

Costello: For some airlines, that may be true, and I hope it becomes the norm. But we have seen over the last decade that the airlines have not been good at self-regulation. The statistic you quoted in the first question bears this out.

Q: There are several other provisions that have gotten virtually no attention from the media. For example, there’s a new rule about disclosure of insecticide use on aircraft, a rule that tightens the smoking ban on planes, a requirement that airlines must offer the option of flight change notification by email, and a requirement that the Transportation Department set up a complaints hotline. Why were these issues important to Congress? In your opinion, why have tarmac delays generated more public interest?

Costello: In general, the flying public is tired of getting poor customer service, and more than anything, just want good, on-time information. People can accept bad weather or a mechanical problem, but they want to know what is going on. The e-mail notification and hotline provisions address this need. The other provisions address health concerns.

Q: Your bill contains a prohibition against voice communications using mobile communications devices on a scheduled flights. Why is that necessary?

Costello: Everyone has experienced poor cell phone etiquette and how annoying it can be. Our bill will make sure the current ban on in-flight cell phone use is not lifted. Beyond the annoyance factor, this is a safety issue. Flight attendants already have to deal with people that will not hang up their phones, and physical altercations between passengers are not unheard of. Also, in-flight cell phone use is not conducive to providing safety instructions and other important announcements.

Q: One other thing about the bill that struck me was language that says the Secretary of Transportation must begin investigate consumer complaints regarding flight cancellations, overbooking, lost and delayed luggage, refund problems, fare overcharges, frequent flier issues and deceptive advertising. Isn’t that what the Transportation Department was supposed to be doing all along?

Costello: In my experience, the FAA’s performance improves on an issue with vigilant congressional oversight. We want to make it clear in this legislation – to both the FAA and the airlines – that the traveling public cannot be ignored any longer. This is precisely why we have held regular hearings on consumer issues since taking over as chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee.

Q: The bill is being considered by the Senate now. What kinds of changes should we expect, when it comes to passenger rights issues?

Costello: I am not expecting many changes, but that is a question for the Senate. The key is to move quickly in passing a bill so we can get to conference and enact it into law.