Nader tries to get air travelers' consumer group off the ground

Yet another consumer group?

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader suggests that the time is ripe - as Washington backs away from regulating industry - for airline passengers to join hands in a nationwide advocacy group.

If the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) or Congress agrees, he would tap the vast reservoir of travelers by adding an insert or message about how to join the group on the back jacket of the airline tickets passengers buy.

''It would be very cheap,'' he insists. ''It wouldn't cost the taxpayer a cent.''

While such a group could zero in on solving consumer complaints, Mr. Nader definitely envisions a broader central role. Members would vote for a governing council, he says, which would hire a contingent of full-time lawyers, safety specialists, and economists to look out for passenger interests.

One thing such an organization would not do, he says, is sell any products or services. By contrast, he says, the Dallas-based International Airline Passenger Association (IAPA), which might sound similar to some travelers, sells insurance and other travel benefits for profit. IAPA spokesman Janet Aynes confirms that the organizations would not be duplicative.

Nader cites as a working precedent the Wisconsin Citizens' Utility Board, a consumer group with 60,000 members. It was launched in 1980, publicized through notices that were inserted in utility bills. The board claims to have saved consumers $43 million during its first year.

By coupling the membership bid with each airline ticket, at least 50 million travelers a year would be reached during what Nader calls their natural ''highest point of interest.'' He predicts as many as 300,000 would join in the first 16 months. With the CAB slated to be phased out during the next two years, Nader says his proposal becomes more important than it would be ordinarily.

First, of course, the federal government would have to give the green light. It is not at all clear that it would. Nader pitched his appeal to CAB chairman Dan McKinnon in a letter.

''The board will certainly consider the idea very seriously, but it hasn't even collectively got its thoughts together (on the idea) yet,'' says John Golden, director of the CAB's office of congressional, community, and consumer affairs.

''It sounds like a good idea,'' notes Alan Pollock, the CAB's director of public affairs. ''But we've been advocating getting government out of the way. It would be a change in philosophical direction for us if we went back to telling the airlines they must carry such a notice.

''The board is very sensitive to costs,'' he adds. ''Who would pay for the printing and stuffing? This wouldn't be warning people of anything. It would simply be an offer. . . . This kind of organization would probably be tweaking the nose of the carriers. There are surely other vehicles around to let people know about it. You could put a coupon or postage paid postcard in in-flight magazines for instance.''

And certainly there are no indications that the airline industry would voluntarily adopt the idea.

''It wouldn't be cheap,'' notes United Airlines spokesman Monty Lazarus. ''Inserts are expensive, and our ticket jacket is pretty well taken up with other things. It doesn't sound like a very promising proposal. . . .''

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