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As airline passengers and travel planners take a collective breath and wish upon a star that the aviation chaos that occurred this summer will end after Labor Day, a group of very disgruntled Attorneys General have banded together and asked the Senate to make airlines accountable to state authorities.

More Than a Strongly Worded Letter

In an August 31st letter to Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, over thirty U.S. Attorney Generals stated that “the airline industry has failed their customers.”

“Over the past couple of years, our offices have received thousands of complaints from outraged airline passengers about airline customer service—including about systematic failures to provide required credits to those who lost travel opportunities during the pandemic. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office, for example, received more consumer complaints about Frontier Airlines than any other company in 2020,” the statement read.

The letter goes on to point out the unique immunity the airlines have from state lawsuits—a law that means the DOT must regulate domestic airlines and oversee consumer protections.

“Unfortunately,” it goes on, “the agency has thus far failed to respond and to provide appropriate resources in those cases. Americans are justifiably frustrated that federal government agencies charged with overseeing airline consumer protection are unable or unwilling to hold the airline industry accountable and to swiftly investigate complaints submitted to the US DOT.”

The AGs then point out that increasing consolidation (JetBlue and Spirit have just announced plans to merge) also hurts consumers by offering a smaller and smaller competitive base from which to choose.

It closes with a plea for other outside agencies (the Department of Justice, for instance, or the Federal Trade Commission) to step in and take a part in overseeing airline accountability.

While Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was widely excoriated for his recent “strongly worded letter” asking airlines to do better, the AGs demand for the government to change the rules that stack up in favor of airlines and leave consumers in the cold is a sign that people and their representatives are no longer willing to settle for watchful waiting.

Why Airlines Get a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” from State Courts

William J. McGee, senior fellow for aviation, American Economic Liberties Project, explains that the rules protecting airlines are called a “federal preemption.” “We need to lose this preemption,” he told Smart Meetings in an exclusive interview appearing in our October/November issue. “No other industry in America has this type of protection.” McGee says his organization is lobbying, like the AGs, to strip the airlines of their Teflon no stick coating. “Let’s do something constructive,” he urges. “A lot of people are upset about this. And it’s affecting other American businesses. The biggest corporations in the country are upset at how they are being treated by the airlines.”

“This letter from a bipartisan set of state attorneys general from across the country crystalizes what we’ve been saying for months now,” McGee said in a public statement. “Since Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has failed to protect air travelers during this summer of endless flight disruptions, state enforcers should be empowered to do so. Congress must take swift action to eliminate the federal preemption liability shield and begin correcting decades of failed regulatory enforcement by the U.S. Department of Transportation.”