Airline actions that harm passengers during pandemics and IT outages need DOT action
Today, the airline industry is facing a major test with the coronavirus pandemic. 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. Most airlines hold a 90-minute to two-hour definition for “significantly.”
United Airlines change shifted flight compensation for delays
United Airlines changed its refund policy written in its contract of carriage at least three times during the pandemic. The airline attempted to hold passengers retroactively bound by the recently changed contract rather than the contract of carriage at the time of purchase.
The first United Airlines change shifted flight compensation for delays from coming into effect after two hours to 25 hours. The old (and long-time) rule provided passengers the right to a full refund if a schedule changed by more than 2 hours. This most recent change means that any travelers who find themselves being delayed for as much as a full day will not get a refund. Later, after a public uproar from business travelers, United changed its contractional definition of “significantly delayed” to six hours. And, next, it returned to two hours again.
Though United cut its service, it should not penalize passengers for their decisions. This is a simple money grab so that the carrier can hold up passengers for the airline’s actions.
Most other major airlines are sticking to their contracts of carriage that will protect passengers in case of canceled flights and changes in schedules. Most passengers will work with those airlines and not complain.
DOT needs to protect passengers from pandemics as well as 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.
The COVID-19 coronavirus means more unpredictable disruptions
Currently, airlines face uncertain world economies as an unknown virus sweeps across the planet. Countries and cities create quarantine zones and some limit corporations from bringing workers together. The economic systems have stopped operating without government help. The travel and tourism that fuels airline growth will stop.
Flight delays and cancellations have consequences for passengers. Rapid changes to our economy create problems similar to those suffered when 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 certain foreign airlines that claim exemption from US law. So far, the US government has not demanded that all citizens see refunds.
Fact: Airlines do not want to pay flight delay compensation — they want to keep your cash
The announcement by major airlines that they are waiving all change fees and cancellation fees will help passengers. Plus, airlines will not go broke. They are strong moneymaking corporations these days.
Also, airline contracts of carriage — a legal contract between passengers and the airline — do specify 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.”
However, contracts and recent decisions do 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.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) needs to change the ways that 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 the ways that airlines must deal with flight delay compensation.
Travelers United worked assiduously on getting airlines to be forced to take responsibility for IT failures. Now, with the pandemic chaos, there will be even more issues to deal with. Plus, IT failures only last a few days. These pandemic regulations will have consequences that last for more than a year and a half.
The latest FAA Reauthorization bill mandated a study on IT failures
In the case of IT failures, Congress mandated DOT do a study of the 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, together with 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, they 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 connecting 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 coronavirus may be a learning opportunity
This coronavirus pandemic may be a learning opportunity. Airline executives have no IT problems to blame, but the pandemic’s effects on passengers are the same — only long term.
Actions that airlines take today will show whether they care for their customers. This coronavirus takes much more than fleecing the public. It seems that no aviation winners can emerge from the pandemic. 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 a form of self-loading cargo. That’s especially true during a pandemic. This virus will need a coordinated effort by both customers and airlines working together to change the system.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 11 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.