What Can Family Travelers Expect from the New DoT?

person in mask on airplane using hand sanitizer
(Photo: @Tonefotografia via Twenty20)

In January, we’ll have a new Secretary of Transportation—one with different objectives and priorities than the current occupant. All the consumer advocates I know are busy getting their position papers ready and trying so suss out where to send them. I’m not about to get into any guessing game, but I have some ideas of what a new Department of Transportation (DoT) might like to do in early 2021.

Family Seating

I’m willing to bet that one of the first new rules will require airlines to seat families together without making them pay seat-assignment fees. This is virtually a no-brainer; so much so that the outgoing secretary might even get it going. The benefit would be obvious to traveling families who would no longer have to choose among paying extra fees, sitting separately, or engaging in seat-trading prior to—and therefore delaying—departure. It would also benefit hapless adult solo travelers and couples who would prefer not to be stuck next to someone else’s kid.

COVID Screening for Travelers

The next big challenge will be handling COVID in the mid- and long-term. The likely regime for large-scale resumption of air travel involves a combination of vaccinations and rapid testing. To make this work, passengers, airlines, airports, and health agencies worldwide need to be on the same page about which vaccines and tests are acceptable and what documents travelers will need. I haven’t seen much discussion about this need, but it’s clearly important if travel is ever to get back even to sort-of normal.

Consumer Issue Challenges Ahead?

On the downside, there’s some chance that the outgoing administration will, before it leaves office, adopt consumer-unfriendly rules allowing airlines to omit taxes and fees from posted fares. If airlines can obfuscate fees, they will; they did it with “fuel surcharges” before an earlier DoT told them they couldn’t. The outgoing administration is showing some inclination to pursue a “scorched earth” policy with regard to consumer issues. It could happen, and if it does, we consumer advocates will have to fight for reinstatement.

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Ed Perkins
Ed Perkins is a longtime consumer advocate and reporter. He spent 25 years in travel research and consulting and was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. His travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's Good Morning America, The CBS Evening News, CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.