Secretary Chao has authority to require airline refunds, COVID safety. She should use it.

The COVID-19 crisis has dramatically impacted the lives of Americans — their health, their economic outlook and much more. Air travel is one area of life that has been completely turned upside down. For months, very few Americans stepped onto an airplane. As more and more people start to think about flying again, concerns about the layouts of airports and airplanes make them problematic transmission risks for travelers. 

This situation demands an attentive and consumer-focused Department of Transportation. Unfortunately, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has stepped back from her duty to protect passengers. She has not taken the actions needed to assist the thousands of consumers who can’t get their money back from airlines after canceling flights. And she has failed to set guidelines for airline and airport safety measures that protect travelers and employees. Instead, she is deferring to the airlines to do this work for her. 

Use authority to protect passengers 

In the face of a record number of complaints from consumers seeking refunds, Secretary Chao has called on airlines to treat passengers fairly during the pandemic. While we heartily agree with her that consumers should be entitled to refunds for travel disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, we urge the secretary to recognize and act on her authority to resolve this problem for consumers.

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, Consumer Reports has heard from nearly 3,500 consumers who were denied refunds for canceled travel. We’ve heard from people whose scheduled events — graduations, weddings, reunions, conventions, conferences — have been canceled with no expectation that those trips will ever happen again.  Some have told us they’re afraid to fly now, because of age or medical conditions. Many are in desperate need of cash to replace lost wages and have no use for a voucher for future travel. These consumers resent giving interest-free loans or total write-offs to airlines they just bailed out with billions of tax dollars.

Masked stewardess on flight from Duesseldorf to Mallorca on June 15, 2020.
Masked stewardess on flight from Duesseldorf to Mallorca on June 15, 2020.

Secretary Chao has the authority to fix this.  If she truly agrees that consumers are not being treated fairly, she can declare the airlines’ refusal to provide refunds to be “unfair” — and unlawful. And on that basis, she can require the airlines to refund consumers’ money.   

More broadly, as states begin to open and travelers begin flying again, it is incumbent on the secretary to use the authority of her position to ensure that consumers are safe and healthy when they fly. Rather than merely urge the airlines to act fairly and with travelers’ health in mind, the proper job of the Transportation secretary is to protect consumers when the airlines fail to do so. 

Transportation secretary: Airlines must be fair to people hit by coronavirus disruptions

Secretary Chao can do this using the same authorities used by past Transportation secretaries who required airlines to include all fees in advertised fares and adopt stronger security measures following 9/11. Just as flyers are looking to the Department of Transportation to help them secure refunds when their travel is canceled, they are counting on the DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that their health is not unreasonably put at risk when they do travel. 

Uniform health and safety standards

The secretary must work with other key administration officials and take an active role in establishing requirements for airlines, airports and travelers to protect against the transmission of COVID-19 during air travel. Among the key areas where expert guidance is needed:

►How and whether to screen passengers and employees for COVID-19 before travel.  

►Appropriate social distancing in airports and airplane cabins. 

►Use of face masks and other personal protective equipment for passengers and employees.

►Appropriate airport and airplane cleaning procedures.

►Effectiveness of airplane cabin air circulation systems.

These decisions should not be made in a patchwork. Individual airports and private sector airlines should not be left to fashion these critical yet delicate health, safety and privacy policies on their own. And consumers should not be left to evaluate which airlines and airports are ensuring adequate precautions for the health and well-being of travelers and their families. 

Our view: Airlines got coronavirus aid, so why are they stingy on flight refunds and safety?

The most critical responsibility of the DOT and the FAA is to secure the safety and well-being of all passengers and of everyone working in commercial aviation. Secretary Chao says she recognizes that U.S. airlines and airports need to do more. But we urge her to also recognize that it is her own department that needs to provide the leadership to see all air travelers safely through this COVID-19 crisis.

Anna Laitin is director of financial fairness and legislative strategy for Consumer Reports, and William J. McGee is an aviation adviser for Consumer Reports. Follow them on Twitter: @AnnaLaitin, @WilliamJMcGee

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus travel: Elaine Chao must require airline refunds and safety

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