Airline actions that harm passengers need DOT action
There are a series of flight delay compensation problems that are caused by airlines, yet airlines accept little responsibility for their own actions and force passengers to pay.
Two of the biggest failures of airlines that have had multimillion-dollar consequences for passengers are reservation/computer system outages and flight delays. Both can be addressed by the Department of Transportation (DOT) should the department choose to deal with flight delay compensation.
In the case of IT failures, Congress has already asked DOT to do a study of the current regulations to ensure that passengers know what airline actions will be. This was because of Travelers United’s efforts negotiating the 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 indicating whether, with respect to a passenger of the air carrier whose travel is interrupted as a result of the widespread disruption, the air carrier will—
‘‘(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
Over the past year, the information technology (IT) system failures have become almost epidemic. Whenever these systems break down, everything from reservations and customer service together with operations breaks down. The airlines have resorted to treating these incidents as “Acts of God.” However, these are airline failures that 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.
Yet, passengers are the ones who suffer the most. If passengers miss connection flights, they either have to wait extraordinarily long times for onward transportation, or they simply lose their airfares on other flights if they are not connecting on the airlines that suffered the IT outages. Let’s say that a passenger booked a flight on Delta Air Lines and was connecting to JetBlue or Spirit. The passenger would find that they have been considered a “no-show” and can lose the entire value of their ongoing airfare. And, that’s not to mention problems with lost hotel reservations and package tours.
Everyday flight delays
Flight delays often have many consequences for passengers that are similar to those suffering under IT failures. However, these delays are simply cataloged and passengers do not receive any flight delay compensation. Unfortunately, airline contracts of carriage — legal contract between passengers and the airline — do specify that passengers are to expect a flight operating 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.”
Of course, in the olden days (pre-2008, more or less) airlines had agreements that provided connections to other airlines in case flights were delayed or canceled. Today, the reciprocity agreements (or interline agreements, as they are often called) have been scaled back. Major airlines like American and Delta refuse to help each other with stranded passengers. Of course, the airline bottom lines do not suffer.
There are many reasons for these delays.
Airline executives blame the IT problems on their lack of investment in their IT systems during the years of deep airline losses. However, the airlines have been making record profits for the past years and there are still IT failures. Plus, having late flights is not a function of information technology. It is a function of operations and no give and take in the current overloaded airline systems.
Even with the IT outages and the recent blackout at their Atlanta hub, Delta will be compensated. Most airline tickets are nonrefundable and the blackout will be paid for from insurance proceeds covering Georgia Power and the City of Atlanta.
Delta, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, estimates that the airport power outage cost the airline up to $50 million in revenue and that it plans to seek compensation from either Georgia Power and/or the airport, which is owned by the city of Atlanta, depending on the official determination of responsibility for the power failure.
DOT needs to protect passengers from the airlines and contractor failures.
The resulting flight delay compensation is a situation where DOT needs to step in.
- Passengers should be protected from damages caused by incidents such as blackouts.
- Passengers should be protected in case of delayed flights.
This does not require a degree in rocket science. 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. And, having these delays caused by airline/contractor-created delays would solve the IT issues as well. It is time for flight delay compensation.
The European Union already has these common-sense rules in place. There is no reason that similar regulations should not be in place in the US for both domestic and international flights. It is time that passengers be treated as human beings rather than a form of self-loading cargo.
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.