GAO report tells DOT to protect consumers better
A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report outlines a series of problems with the Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) airline consumer protections.
Problems with consumer protections range from internal training operations to the education of consumers. Plus, the GAO report highlights issues from handling complaints to enforcing regulations. The list of issues appears enormous.
Changes to DOT operations come at what seems to advocates a glacial pace. However, DOT workers consider the system change as monumental. Travelers United and a team of other consumer advocacy organizations now work together to keep an eye on changes at the Department.
In the GAO transmittal letter of the Airline GAO Consumer Protection report to the House Transporation and Infrastructure Committee and the Aviation Subcommittee, the GAO notes:
Each year hundreds of millions of passengers rely on airlines to get them to their destination without incident. However, if a service incident does occur — such as a delayed or canceled flight, mishandled or lost baggage, an unsatisfactory customer-service experience, or a denied boarding — a passenger’s experience quickly deteriorates.
Congress sees consumer protections problems.
During the FAA Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1420, 115th Cong.), Congress debated the “Know Before You Fly Act.” This section told passengers what services airlines provide during flight delays and cancellations resulting from computer network failures. In addition, baggage fees would be available in internet fare quotations, among other things. Senators Markey and Blumenthal introduced legislation to end involuntary denied boardings. Their legislation would compensate passengers for certain delays and cancellations, and increase fee transparency.
The Department of Transporation (DOT) statistics show a steady improvement in service. However, the number of consumer complaints jumped almost 10 percent from a year ago.
Many consumer protections “improvements” are illusory.
Though the GAO report noted that consumer protections statistics appear improved for airlines, many of those “improvements” are illusory.
- Denied boardings, though dropping in real numbers, still include almost 350,000 “voluntary” denied boarding incidents.
- On-time performance includes a 15-minute grace period.
- Mishandled baggage only recently has been measured based on actual baggage loaded on planes.
For years, Travelers United urged DOT to increase its outreach to passengers by informing them of passenger rights that can receive compensation. They also urge DOT to include the complaint email address on all computer-generated ticket itineraries and boarding passes. (There is plenty of room next to the Sudoku games and advertisements.) Travelers United also urges DOT to inform passengers of their rights via posters and videos at airports (as the European Union has done). However, DOT provided neither solution to passengers. Both consumer protections can be cost-free to DOT.
The new Consumer Advocate should help with consumer protections.
Consumers, with efforts led by Travelers United, now have an important addition to DOT because of the FAA Reauthorization Bill. Section 424(c) established an aviation consumer advocate within DOT. The DOT advocate must, among other things, identify and recommend actions DOT can take to improve the enforcement of aviation consumer protection rules. The consumer advocate was created mainly through the efforts of Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the former Ranking Member on the Senate Commerce Committee. Today, Mr. Nelson is the NASA director.
This important provision makes official the consumer protections and consumer advocacy the work of DOT. There is no airline advocate mentioned in any of the founding bills of DOT. The changes should also be added to DOT’s mission statement. Travelers United is actively working to do that.
Consumer groups met with the Consumer Advocate at DOT eight times during the past two years. They will be meeting with the advocate’s offices and staff on a quarterly basis.
The GAO report is filled with DOT consumer protection failings during the Trump administration.
DOT does not reach out to consumers about passenger protection problems. According to the GAO Consumer Protection Report on pages 11 and 12:
If DOT finds that an airline has violated consumer protection requirements, they may take enforcement action against the airline. They may, for example, assess civil penalties. In addition to promoting airlines’ compliance with consumer protection requirements, DOT also conducts activities aimed at educating passengers about their rights and the services provided by airlines.
For example, DOT’s aviation consumer protection website highlights passengers’ rights and describes how to file complaints with DOT, in addition to other consumer resources.
DOT’s passenger complaint data do not include passengers’ complaints submitted directly to airlines. Officials estimate that, on average, airlines receive 50 complaints for every 1 complaint DOT receives.
…the difference in complaint rates is because passengers may not know they can file a complaint with DOT.
DOT needs an accurate collection of consumer complaints.
According to the GAO report (on page 18), “DOT officials generally recommend passengers first reach out to airlines, as they are best positioned to respond to a passenger’s complaints.”
This DOT double standard is unacceptable.
- DOT (in its own testimony to GAO) says that it purposely encourages consumers to send complaints to the airlines and not DOT. Plus, the Department provides no instructions to passengers while traveling about how to file complaints to their office.
- When complaints are submitted to DOT, they are often coded incorrectly.
- At the same time, DOT claims no need to deal with consumer complaints highlighted in federal legislation because consumers have not reported enough complaints.
DOT enforcement of their own regulations is lax.
According to the GAO study, DOT rarely takes enforcement action. When violations are discovered, the fines are paltry. However, during the pandemic when the airlines were fleecing passengers by the thousands, there was no enforcement. Meanwhile, the FAA was handing out whopping fines (some as much as $50,000) to individual travelers.
During the entire Obama administration, DOT only conducted customer service compliance inspections 33 times at airline headquarters. More than 75 percent found violations. Total fines ranged from $40,000 to $1,200,000. In the Trump administration, DOT performed no inspections.
DOT shortchanges airline passengers. Passengers do not get protection. DOT does not enforce current rules, and when enforcement takes place, it is inconsequential. This was even true when almost 100,000 consumers complained about not getting their refunds for flights canceled by airlines.
DOT passenger protection problems run deep, according to GAO.
- DOT has not developed quantifiable performance measures. These measures are needed to assess how well the Department educates airlines about consumer protection requirements.
- The Department lacks quantifiable performance measures when conducting inspections of airlines at airlines’ headquarters and at airports.
- DOT lacks quantifiable performance measures related to conducting inspections of airlines at airlines’ headquarters and at airports.
The Travelers United analysis of this GAO report continues. Our overview focuses on DOT efforts at educating passengers about their rights. DOT, under the leadership of Secretary Buttigieg, must take positive steps.
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.