Congress, the Wall Street Journal, and Travelers United say DOT does not protect aviation consumers.
Today will not go down as a good day for the protect aviation consumers team at the Department of Transportation (DOT). Congress sent a letter to DOT. The Wall Street Journal lambasted the Department for not effectively assisting consumers. And, Travelers United started a petition to get about $10 billion in airline flight credits made non-expiring by the Secretary of Transportation by having him announce emergency guidance that orders such action.
Both Houses of Congress sent a joint protect aviation consumers letter to the Transportation Secretary.
The Transportation Department received a letter signed by Senators Markey and Blumenthal and Congressmen Cohen and Garcia stating that DOT must use its consumer protection authority to force airlines to do the right thing — make flight credits non-expiring. DOT should protect aviation consumers.
We believe the DOT must take strong action to address these complaints and ensure the return of travelers’ money. At a minimum, it is imperative that the DOT does not allow pandemic-related flight credits to expire. These credits began to pile up when, due to health concerns, financial difficulties, and closed borders, countless consumers began canceling flights in early 2020. Rather than issue cash refunds, many airlines instead issued temporary flight credits that are now beginning to expire — alongside hard-earned frequent flier miles.
Worse still, airline policies governing flight credits are needlessly complex, making it unnecessarily difficult for consumers to redeem these flight credits before they expire. Across the airline industry, current policies governing refunds, flight credits, and frequent flier miles are opaque and can differ considerably from company to company.
The Wall Street Journal notes that record consumer complaints are met with a void.
The Wall Street Journal published a “Middle Seat” article that notes that DOT’s attempt to split the baby left those whose airlines canceled flights able to get refunded for their flight costs. However, those who canceled flights on their own were forced to take airline flight credits. And the airlines have put many strings on the use of these credits.
The DOT, under Republican and Democratic administrations, has done very little to help frustrated consumers so far, just one stark example of continued lack of government grit when it comes to consumer issues in air travel.
A coronavirus vaccine was developed and deployed quicker than the DOT could enforce its own rules. …
… many carriers still haven’t offered refunds, and it’s unclear if the DOT will hold them accountable. In addition, consumer advocates say passengers should be entitled to an option of a refund when they canceled — before the airline canceled — because the president and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shut down travel, leaving them no choice but not to go. …
The DOT’s lack of action on other consumer protection issues, from family seating to evacuation standards to requiring refunds on seat and baggage fees when services aren’t delivered, has been an issue predating the Trump administration. Congress has found rare bipartisan agreement on several airline-service issues and ordered DOT to act, with few results.
Airline flight credits are complex, hard to use, and they expire. Don’t let airlines steal our money by allowing these credits to expire.
In addition to these issues, airlines have also made their credits difficult to use for many passengers. Requirements, which are different for every airline, include restrictions on who can use the flight credits, what class of service can be purchased with the credit, and the airlines placed differing expiration dates on the flight credits.
Should the airlines actually expire some of the credits, it would be the same as theft. I have not heard of any airline canceling their flight credits yet, but the expiration dates vary dramatically. One airline provided 90-day flight vouchers but the vouchers could be used to purchase tickets a year in the future and there would be no change fee. Others have regularly pushed the expiration date forward. Some expired in the autumn of 2021, others at the end of 2021. One airline issued two-year flight credits and another has said all credit vouchers will remain in effect until the end of 2022. None of DOT’s actions have been to protect aviation consumers.
Travelers United launched a petition to get the Secretary of Transportation to take emergency action to make flight credits never expire and make them follow common rules.
Until this petition was created, there was no way for the normal American aviation consumer to reach out by email to either the Secretary of Transportation or the Enforcement and Consumer Protection offices of DOT. The newly created email for consumers who want to reach the consumer protection office and the Secretary of Transportation is [email protected]. Plus, Travelers United encourages all consumers to send DOT complaints HERE.
Travelers United is sick and tired of the lack of DOT enforcement and the resistance of airlines to make all flight credits issued during the pandemic non-expiring. Plus, Travelers United, joined by the Senators who sent the letter to DOT today, has called for a uniform national procedure for all flight credits and non-expiration of those credits. It is time DOT protects aviation consumers.
Why won’t the Secretary of Transportation meet with consumer advocates?
Since before the inauguration of Presiden Biden, Travelers United has met with long-time members of DOT and with members of the transition teams to get a meeting with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Travelers United, together with all major travel advocacy groups in America, are still waiting for our audience with the new DOT Secretary.
I’ve seen Secretary Pete on late-night TV, on morning shows, news programs, but, so far, he has not had an extra second for consumer advocates. Our DOT-appointed consumer advocate says that she had passed our request to the Secretary, but there has been no inkling of interest. My next actions may be to ride my bike between the DOT Secretary’s house and the DOT offices and hope that I meet him on the street.
For heaven’s sake, the man should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. I have heard a litany of excuses. Initially, it was that the Secretary has no support staff because Republicans have slowed down the approval process. Today, the problem is that Secretary Pete is busy getting infrastructure work done. I can vouch for his absolute failure to meet with transportation consumer advocates and his enforcement division’s absolute lack of enforcement of DOT airline regulations that were repeatedly ignored and broken by America’s airlines with impunity.
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.