A quarter-century ago, Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project fought for passenger rights and won major victories, such as the requirement that airlines compensate passengers who are bumped from an oversold flight.
Today, the organization exists in name only, and as carriers focus on controlling costs to stay afloat, consumer protections are getting short shrift: Congress recently let lapse a rule that protected passengers from losing the value of their tickets if they book on an airline that goes out of business.
Apart from an increase in the compensation offered to bumped passengers, there's been little progress on other fronts. Flight delays have been at record levels for the past two years, with one of every four planes arriving late, and more fliers are enduring long waits on the tarmac. The government's response has been to form a passel of task forces and commissions, a time-honored Washington tactic.
On each of these panels there is at least one representative from the many organizations that claim to represent the interests of fliers. A look at these self-styled advocates suggests why they haven't been more effective.
has the highest profile, though it was founded less than two years ago by former Napa Valley real estate agent Kate Hanni, after she and her family were stuck on an airport tarmac for nine hours. Hanni runs her organization on a shoestring budget, and its roughly 25,000 members need only sign a petition in favor of a passenger bill of rights to join. Her main goal: a law that would guarantee basic amenities to travelers trapped on a plane for more than three hours. The cause has had some setbacks: A "bill of rights" enacted in New York State was overturned on appeal by the airlines, and in October, Congress left town without acting on a federal version of the bill. Hanni also runs a hotline for fliers to call while stuck on a delayed plane.
The appears to be a one-man operation run by Maryland-based attorney and former airline executive David Stempler. The association's Web site states that it is not currently accepting members, and Stempler did not respond to repeated requests from Condé Nast Traveler to discuss the membership question. Based on his press releases, Stempler's views closely mirror the airlines' positions for example, he opposes a passenger bill of rights. Nonetheless, he has been appointed to serve as the consumer spokesman on several high-level DOT task forces.
The (IAPA) claims 400,000 members and is recognized by the DOT. Its literature says that it "advocates" for better airline service as a consumer organization. The association is in fact a commercial enterprise with offices in the United Kingdom, Dallas and Hong Kong that sells travel insurance and other products. The annual membership fee is $129, which I recently paid to see what I'd get. Some glossy brochures arrived several days later containing my insurance policy and extolling benefits, including discounted membership in airport clubs and reduced rates on hotels and car rentals. While IAPA does occasionally file comments with the federal government on matters affecting travelers, its ties with the airlines make it unlikely the association would take any positions strongly opposed by the industry.
The was most recently headed by lawyer Paul Hudson, who became an airline consumer activist after losing his daughter in the crash of Pan Am 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland. It does not have an active membership and is now working in partnership with Hanni's group.
When Nader was fighting the airlines, the industry was still regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), a bipartisan panel that shut down in 1984. Former CAB official Norman Strickman now heads the DOT's 38-member , which fields all complaints received from consumers. It also levies penalties ($23 million since 2000) resulting from its investigations: One recently found that carriers were failing to disclose the on-time performance of some flights to investigators posing as consumers. Last spring the division informed the airlines that they couldn't retroactively impose new luggage fees on reservations made before the fee was announced.