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‘Enforce the Law? Who, Us?’

Despite having authority to regulate airline fees on international tickets, the U.S. Department of Transportation decided on November 6, 2012, not to enforce its statutory requirement. This decision was in response to a formal July 2, 2012, complaint by Donald L. Pevsner, a longtime consumer advocate in air travel, arguing that the current fees to change nonrefundable international tickets, generally $250 to $300, are grossly excessive. Pevsner asked the DOT to enforce the law.

As I noted in an earlier posting, with deregulation, DOT lost authority to regulate how much airlines charge to change tickets—or charge for anything else—in the domestic market. But the DOT still has statutory authority over international ticket fees, from the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (specifically, in 49 U.S.C. Section 41501), which states, in part, “Every air carrier and foreign air carrier shall establish, comply with, and enforce … reasonable prices, classifications, rules, and practices related to foreign air transportation.” In government-ese, “reasonable” means reasonably related to costs. And industry sources say that a “reasonable” ticket exchange fee would be no more than $40, tops.

Rather than agree to enforce this law, the official DOT response to Pevsner’s complaint states, in part, was, “In the 34 years since the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act, the Department has declined to use this authority to strike down fare rules in foreign air transportation,” concluding that it would not start now. DOT’s suggested remedy for consumers channels Marie Antoinette: Let them buy refundable tickets—this despite the fact that such tickets always cost several times more than the lowest-fare tickets most consumers buy.

Not willing to accept this brush-off, Pevsner started asking for help in pressuring DOT to reconsider its do-nothing stance. So far, he reports, he has found no support, citing:

  • The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal declined to cover the story.
  • The offices of Senators Boxer, Cantwell, and Warren and the staff of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security declined to take any action.
  • Consumers Union and Public Citizen declined to take up the issue.
  • The White House switchboard dumped Pevsner’s calls into the dead-end “Comment Line” recording.

Before deregulation, DOT refused to enforce a regulation banning some forms of ticket discounting on the grounds that violations of the rule benefited consumers and “nobody is getting hurt.” At the time it was a correct—and courageous—decision. But this time, somebody is getting hurt: Pevsner estimates that U.S. consumers are being overcharged by close to $2 billion a year.

Domestic exchange fees, although somewhat lower, are also unreasonable, but DOT is precluded from taking any action. Fortunately, domestic travelers have some realistic options beyond buying ultra-expensive refundable tickets. Southwest charges no exchange fees at all, and smaller lines charge less than the “big four.”

But international travelers don’t have many comparable low-fare options. DOT does have authority to tackle those outrageous and unreasonable fees, and DOT should enforce its own regulations. I formally supported Pevsner’s original filing and I will continue to support his continued efforts.

So, for now, the situation stands with Pevsner still trying to convince some responsible organization to prod DOT into revisiting its dismissal of his complaint. For further detail, you can read Pevsner’s original claim and the final DOT response on; enter “DOT-OST-2012-0109” in the locator. And you can read Pevsner’s extended explanation here. Pevsner isn’t giving up on his quest: As Yogi taught us, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Ed Perkins writes for SmarterTravel as an independent advocate. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Smarter Travel Media LLC.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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