Consumer protection notification and DOT airline complaint systems both need improvement
Department of Transportation (DOT) has some good processes to help passengers. DOT’s website has been improved and provides better customer service information than ever before. The website is mobile-friendly so that travelers can access the information they need while traveling. And, the DOT complaint system actually works for consumers when there is a rule violation.
Information about compensation and the complaint system is not well-publicized.
For years, Travelers United has been working to get proper notification of passenger rights and the DOT complaint system. However, today, there is no place that passengers can easily find how to file DOT complaints, nor is there a place where compensation is clearly outlined for passengers. When it comes to lost/damaged/delayed checked baggage or to filing DOT complaints, passengers are on their own. Or, they are at the mercy of the airlines.
The Travelers United efforts have been in the areas of putting up posters and videos at airports where passengers encounter their problems. The consumer group has also been discussing the development of a consumer social media hotline. Neither initiative has yet been taken up by DOT.
The worst issue is compensation for international flights. DOT does not tell passengers what compensation is available for mishandled checked-baggage or for delays. Both are clearly defined in the European Union (EU) rules and in the Montreal Convention treaty that the US signed. Why does DOT keep them secret? A DOT passenger advocate should forcefully push for clear explanations of passenger compensation. They should cover both international and domestic travel and the DOT complaint system.
A short statement on computer-generated itineraries and boarding passes could inform consumers of their rights.
Once, airline tickets were controlled by the International Air Transport Associaton (IATA). The notifications about consumer protections appeared on every ticket. And, when passengers received a ticket at the airport, the passenger protections were printed on the ticket stock. However, where boarding passes are printed at home or put into mobile phones, all notifications disappear. It does not have to be this way.
A simple statement on every computer-generated ticket itinerary or boarding pass will provide the basic consumer protections needed for airline transportation. Here is a suggested statement.
Service and safety complaints can be filed at https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/file-consumer-complaint.
Passengers can be compensated for denied boarding, for loss/damage/delay of checked baggage, and some international delays under DOT, EU, and Montreal Convention rules.
Must DOT inform passengers of their rights? Consumer groups have taken DOT to court to find out.
The current court case focuses on notification of international rights. Few US fliers know about the Montreal Convention rules. The Montreal Convention, a treaty governing international air travel, guarantees passenger compensation on a quasi-no fault basis for events such as flight delays, death, injury, and baggage loss or damage. According to Article 3 of the treaty, the airlines must provide adequate notice that passengers may be entitled to compensation for flight delays. Montreal Convention delay compensation can be as much as $6,450.
DOT does not clearly outline the international rules put in place by the Montreal Convention and it does not provide an overview of the current EU rules that affect flights between the USA and the European Union. The Department does not inform passengers about their rights to about $700 for flight delays of three hours or more when flying from EU to the USA on all flights. And, it does not outline the fact that all flights from the USA to the EU have the same compensation rules for European airlines.
These compensation levels are not insignificant. Passenger compensation can be up to $6,450, depending on circumstances, under the Montreal Convention. And, about $700 (depending on the exchange rate) passenger compensation is virtually automatic. The EU rules are in effect when flying from Europe to the US on all aircraft and from the US to Europe on EU carriers.
The DOT complaint system works but can be improved.
The biggest improvement would be to let the flying public know that DOT has a complaint system. Most complaints are filed directly with the airlines. This prevents DOT from collecting data about complaint filings. It is estimated that DOT complaints pale in comparison to those filed with the airlines. Airline complaints number about 10 times more than those filed with DOT.
Though DOT encourages passengers to file complaints with airlines, they later will claim that they did not receive enough direct complaints to take any rulemaking actions. The airlines need to share all complaints with DOT. Or, DOT needs to make an effort to collect as many complaints as possible.
A recent Government Accountability Organization (GAO) report — AIRLINE CONSUMER PROTECTIONS Additional Actions Could Enhance DOT’s Compliance and Education Efforts — was completed in late 2018. It shows that the DOT complaint system can be improved.
DOT’s complaint system, even when used by consumers, is not properly maintained by DOT — again, according to the GAO Report, pages 29-31. These complaints about the DOT system deal mainly with record-keeping. Without good records, trends and examination of data will not result in examinations of new future consumer protections.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018. He also served on the Consumer Advocacy Subcommittee of the Transportation Security Advisory Board.