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A new round of consumer-friendly rules

DOT has done something that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable by proposing new regulations covering everything from airfare disclosures to peanut allergies.

The federal government has a message for the airline industry: No more Mr. Nice Guy.

It’s a little ironic, considering that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, under whose watch today’s sweeping new airline passenger laws have been proposed, is a Mr. Nice Guy poster boy.

Yet the affable former congressman has done something that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable by releasing a series of new administrative rules that cover everything from tarmac delays to airfare disclosures to peanut allergies. (Yes, peanut allergies. The department is considering several measures that would provide “greater access to air travel” for people with severe peanut allergies.)

“Airline passengers have rights and should be able to expect fair and reasonable treatment when they fly,” he said, adding that with this action, he hopes to “raise the bar” for airlines when it comes to treating passengers fairly.

If the regulations are enacted, it would represent a dramatic departure from a Transportation Department that, under previous administrations, enjoyed a reputation for being as friendly to the airline industry as it was forgiving of rule violations.

“With this action, the government stands on the side of the consumer,” said Charles Leocha, president of the Washington-based Consumer Travel Alliance.

Perhaps it is because LaHood is aware of the plight of the air travelers — in an interview earlier this spring in Washington, he shared with me his own frustrations with airline codesharing and baggage fees — that today’s administrative rulemaking proposal goes so far. Or maybe the orders come straight from the Obama administration, which has taken positions on regulation that would have been unlikely under Republican rule.

Either way, the government’s actions will almost certainly change the way you will fly in the future.

The airline industry reacted cautiously to news of the rules.

The Air Transport Association, which represents the major domestic air carriers, issued a statement this afternoon that its members’ “shared goal” is to provide a safe, efficient, reliable and economically viable air transportation system consistent with the expectations of their customers, employees and shareholders. “Today’s DOT notice of proposed rulemaking will be evaluated against that standard, with a focus on minimizing potential passenger inconvenience,” it added.

A Continental Airlines representative, reached late this afternoon, said the airline was “currently reviewing DOT’s proposed rulemaking.”

And Delta Air Lines said it is “currently reviewing the newly proposed regulations and at the same time continuing to work diligently to minimize travel disruptions for our customers.”

Some passengers expressed relief after hearing about the proposed rules.

“It’s about time,” said Kevin Elliott, a customer service manager who lives in Lima, Peru. He recently booked a flight back to the States for his grandmother’s funeral, but found that the $498 fare didn’t include an additional $200 in taxes. “However, imagine my shock when they then added nearly $400 in additional fees including fuel surcharges and other unlisted surcharges more than doubling the price,” he added.

Elliott hopes the rule will end the deceptive practice of quoting one fare but charging a significantly higher price. In the long run, say air travelers, that may help more than the people who fly.

“The fact that passengers will finally be aware of every fee and expense that goes into the ticket price may actually benefit the airlines in the long term,” said Rabbi Michael Green, the overseas director for a seminary. “After all, the more informed and educated a consumer is, the less disgruntled of a passenger they may be during and before flight.”

Not everyone is as upbeat.

“This would be a welcome change,” admitted Aimee Buhr, a research scientist from Iowa City, Iowa. “But I hate to get my hopes up.”

She makes a valid point. Comments on these rules are open until Sept. 5, after which the department makes a final ruling. Anything could happen between now and then. Certainly, the proposed new rules have their critics, too, including many who believe the government has no business telling the airline industry what to do.

“I think that it is unnecessary government intervention in a free market,” said Alan Birk, an Arizona-based business traveler. “If you don’t like how an airline prices it tickets, you don’t have to fly them. Unless you are traveling to a small market, you can always fly Southwest, AirTran and Frontier which do a better job of disclosing their prices, according to the critics.”

Birk fears that too much government regulation will erode the benefits he’s worked hard to earn as a frequent flier. “My concern as an elite frequent flier is that I will lose benefits such as premium coach seats and the ability to check three bags for free,” he says.

Even if the final rules are watered down, supporters say they promise to improve the overall quality of the air travel experience by ensuring passengers can compare the costs of traveling, more accurate timely information, treated fairly and honestly.

Almost makes you wish the government were less nice more often, doesn’t it?

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at .