A little-noticed provision in the 1,200-page bill to reauthorize the FAA will create an aviation consumer advocate within the Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD) of the US Department of Transportation (DOT).

The new position will be charged with assisting consumers in resolving carrier service complaints, reviewing the resolution by DOT of such complaints and recommending actions the agency can take to improve enforcement of aviation consumer protection rules.

DOT, for its part, has opposed the creation of the aviation consumer advocate, arguing that it will be redundant, given the work of the analysts at the ACPD. That division publishes monthly Air Travel Consumer Reports and shares passenger complaints with airlines, although industry-watchers claim it has been underfunded in recent years.

In May, DOT took the unusual step of writing a letter to Commerce Committee ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Florida) to register opposition to several “unnecessary and counter-productive rulemaking mandates” in the Senate’s FAA reauthorization bill, including the provision creating the aviation consumer advocate position.

In the letter, the agency said the new position “would result in an increase in cost with no benefit.” The agency added that “the analysts in DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division already serve as consumer advocates. They speak with consumers every day to facilitate a resolution to their air travel service problems. DOT also already submits an annual report to Congress on the total number of disability complaints that airlines receive.”

While Congress eventually ditched some of the consumer protections flagged by DOT as problematic, it stuck with the language creating the aviation consumer advocate. That measure appeared in both chambers’ original reauthorization bills, as well as H.R. 302, the final agreement struck between both chambers in September and quickly passed by Congress in early October.

The consumer advocate will update Congress each year through an annual report that includes the total number of passenger complaints, which will be further broken down to include carrier name, complaint category and enforcement outcome.

More specifically, the aviation consumer advocate will be asked to evaluate unfair and deceptive practices by carriers and ticket agents, terms and conditions agreed to by passengers and carriers (both US- and foreign-based), tarmac delays and consumer protections for air ambulance consumers, among other applicable practices.

Charles Leocha, president and founder of consumer group Travelers United, called the provision “important” and said it will modify DOT’s mission by requiring the agency to prioritize the airline passenger experience.

“The DOT mission statement has totally eliminated passengers,” Leocha said. “This is going to force them to put passengers back in, because now Congress is telling them, ‘You are involved in taking care of airline passengers.’ I think that’s really going to make a big difference for the flying public.”

Ben Goldstein, Ben.Goldstein@aviationweek.com