Airline actions that harm passengers during IT outages need DOT action.
The airline industry is facing a major test combined with the coronavirus pandemic rebound. However, not all airlines are working to help passengers. The DOT sent out an enforcement memorandum that reminded airlines they must provide compensation for flights if the airline canceled the flight or in the case of an extended delay. Airfares and other payments must be paid if a flight’s schedule has been “significantly” changed. Plus, the DOT has created a dashboard of what airlines promise to provide for stranded travelers.
Unfortunately, the DOT rules only apply to major changes in reservations that have not yet been implemented. If you have not taken off and the airline cancels or the departure is announced as significantly delayed, you can get your money back. That is the law according to DOT. However, the latest FAA Reauthorisation bill erases that protection when it comes to widespread disruptions because of a failure of the reservation system. The airlines must only tell passengers that the airline will do nothing for travelers. American Airlines took just that stance once Travelers United publicized it.
DOT needs to protect passengers from airline and contractor failures.
The resulting flight delay and cancellation compensation is a situation where DOT needs to step in for both scheduled flights and for events like the COVID-19 coronavirus.
- A simple fine for flights arriving more than three or four hours late would provide passengers enough financial cushion to pay for an overnight or increased airfare.
- During times of pandemics and Acts of God, change fees and cancellation fees should be eliminated.
Weather events mean more unpredictable disruptions and IT stress.
Flight delays and cancellations have consequences for passengers. Rapid economic changes create problems similar to those faced with unknown IT failures. However, weather delays are simply cataloged and passengers do not receive any flight delay compensation. The coming cancellations will need a new approach. Hopefully, a fair approach.
DOT’s enforcement memorandum noted that if passengers see refunds there will be mitigation to any penalties. But, all airlines still have not agreed to refund all airfares and fees in cash. The main problems seem to be with foreign airlines claiming exemption from US law. The DOT has not demanded that all citizens see refunds.
Plus, passengers who canceled flights when the nation’s medical leaders asked them to do so to stop the spread of the disease, have not received any financial compensation for their patriotic acts. They have instead faced an airline flight credit protocol that is confusing and different for each major airline. Shame on the airlines for not dealing with these problems on their own.
Fact: Airlines do not want to pay flight delay compensation — they want to keep your cash.
DOT’s dashboard of assistance is far too little for consumers. A paltry meal voucher and a distressed passenger hotel rate are inadequate for travelers harmed by IT failures and broken schedules. Passengers must ask for this poor compensation from airlines.
Also, airline contracts of carriage — a legal contract between passengers and the airline — specify that passengers expect a flight to operate according to a schedule. The only guarantee is that the passenger will be transported from Point A to Point B. There are no requirements for airlines to even stipulate the time or date of arrival. Everything is on “best efforts.”
However, contracts and recent decisions protect passengers based on cancellations, and schedule changes are part of the mix. And, DOT is holding the airlines’ feet to the regulatory fire mainly because of consumer ire led by Travelers United, and a collection of the largest consumer advocacy groups have demanded refunds. However, airlines don’t have to do anything. They just must notify you. AA just did that very clearly.
However, going forward, American Airlines clarifies that it only owes travelers a refund of the unflown portion of their ticket:
If we or our airline partner fail to operate or delay your arrival more than 4 hours, our sole obligation is to refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees according to our involuntary refunds policy.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) needs to change how airlines deal with flight delay compensation.
Two giant failures of airline IT systems resulted in multimillion-dollar consequences for passengers. These fiascos happened via reservation/computer system outages and flight delays. The Department of Transportation (DOT) needs to change how airlines deal with flight delay compensation.
The latest FAA Reauthorization bill mandated a study on IT failures.
In the case of IT failures, Congress mandated DOT to study current regulations. The new law intended that passengers know what airline actions will be in case of widespread IT failures. Travelers United’s negotiating efforts resulted in the hardline wording of the latest 2018 FAA Funding Bill. In Section 428 Congress has mandated that all airlines will have to tell passengers what they can expect in terms of compensation, lodging, and meals. It is a start.
Section 428: In the event of a widespread disruption, a covered air carrier shall immediately publish, via a prominent link on the air carrier’s public internet website, a clear statement. It will indicate air carrier actions with respect to a passenger of the air carrier whose travel is interrupted as a result of the widespread disruption. Specific provisions will be noted:
‘‘(1) provide for hotel accommodations;
‘‘(2) arrange for ground transportation;
‘‘(3) provide meal vouchers;
‘‘(4) arrange for air transportation on another air carrier or foreign air carrier to the passenger’s destination; and
‘‘(5) provide for sleeping facilities inside the airport terminal.
Computer/reservation system outages are mini-pandemics.
Over the past year, information technology (IT) system failures have become almost epidemic. Whenever these systems break down, everything from reservations and customer service to operations ceases. The airlines resort to treating these incidents as “Acts of God.” However, these IT failures are completely under the control of the airlines and their contractors.
According to FlyerTalk.com:
In recent years, computer crashes have become almost as big a potential headache for air travelers as the threat of winter storms. In January, a computer glitch led to the cancellation of at least 280 Delta Air Lines flights. Less than a month later, United Airlines flights were subject to system-wide delays following a crash of the airline’s flight planning network. To varying degrees, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Alaska Airlines have all suffered similar nightmare scenarios involving IT glitches.
Passengers are the ones who suffer the most during IT failures.
If passengers miss connection flights, they either must wait extraordinarily long times for onward transportation or simply lose their airfares on other flights if they are not connecting on the same airline that suffered the IT outages. Let’s say that a passenger booked a flight on Delta Air Lines and holds a connection to JetBlue or Spirit. The passenger may find that they have been considered a “no-show” on the connecting flight. They can lose the entire value of their ongoing airfare. And, that’s not to mention problems with lost hotel reservations and package tours.
The revamp of airline demand may be a perfect learning opportunity.
Actions that airlines take today will show whether they care for their customers when their IT systems collapse. Passengers cannot travel. Airlines cannot fly freely. It looks like both the consumers and the industry will be losers.
Passengers need to be treated as human beings rather than as a form of self-loading cargo. As the aviation system rebuilds it needs to take care of passengers. This includes business travelers, families flying together, sick passengers, and those who sacrifice time with families. Today’s situation needs a coordinated effort by the DOT, customers, airports, unions, and airlines working together to change the system. Let’s get started.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.