Monday, April 25, 2011

Two Cheers for the U.S. DOT

I was pretty pleased these past few days, hearing about the U.S. Department of Transportation's plans to strengthen air passengers' rights when it comes to getting bumped from a flight, being compensated for lost luggage, suffering through delays on the tarmac and so on. Then I remembered I am facing eight domestic flights in the next two weeks - only two of which, nonstops on Virgin America - are likely to be pleasant, and my mood darkened.

Now, reading over the list of changes, I'm thinking not hip, hip hurrah for the DOT, but just hip, hip - hold the hurrah. The rules-changes are definitely a step in the right direction, but do they go far enough?

No. Especially in a time when air traffic controllers - zonked on the job from lack of sleep - fall into deep slumber or chill out by watching a movie rather than direct pilots how to land. Even U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama's pilot was given inaccurate information from an air traffic control tower last week. The First Lady! And that was a military ATC, too.

I'm all for boosting compensation when a bag is lost and the airline is culpable. Ditto if a traveler is involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight. Have you flown in the United States lately? If you do manage to wedge yourself into the plane, you may find - as I did this morning when I tried to book a seat on a flight departing 10 days from now - that every seat is taken. Airlines are also supposed to become more transparent about listing ancillary fees that brought them $2.5 billion USD in revenue last year; that, too, is devoutly desired, as it can be hard to know the true total cost of a flight at the time of booking.

People in civil aviation reflexively - and understandably - say that safety is their highest priority. In line with that, DOT should understand that boosting an ATC's time away from the tower to nine hours from eight - one of the rules-changes scheduled to take effect in late August, after the busy summer flying season - is not enough. These people are exhausted. (So, incidently, are many pilots.) Treating people who control the movements of planes and the lives of millions of travelers like sleep-deprived hospital interns is not a good idea. (Having sleep-deprived hospital interns is not a good idea, either.) Adding a second ATC to the lone worker pulling duty overnight at 28 U.S. airports is a good, and long overdue, move.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the PBS "NewsHour'' that his department and Federal Aviation Administration administrators will make additional changes in American air travel if necessary. Get ready to make them, Mr. Secretary. It's necessary.

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