DOT website consumer protection pages help travelers.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) has been working on its DOT website consumer protection pages, “Got Flights? Know Your Rights.” The intent is to help travelers better know their travel rights while flying. And now that Congress has mandated an Aviation Consumer Advocate at DOT, travelers have a secure perch in the protection hierarchy.
At the end of this month, Travelers United will make their new Travel Bill of Rights App live. Many basic travel rights are included and the organization will add other tips to make trips more pleasant. The app will be included as a part of the $49 membership in Travelers United. We plan on taking the same DOT complaint form and setting it up so that it can be filled in at the airport or aboard an airplane when the issues are fresh in travelers’ minds.
The most recent issue was airline refunds because of COVID flight cancellations
Travelers United, together with other consumer organizations, met with DOT’s consumer advocate. They discussed getting refunds of money paid from airlines that only wanted to pay in airline credits. The organizations pointed out that DOT rules said that all airfares, ancillary fees, and taxes paid in advance must be refunded when an airline cancels a flight. DOT sent a notification to airlines informing them of this regulation. The Department’s consumer advocate provided an added mandate. Airlines that twist customers’ arms to take credits must let those customers know that they are eligible for cash refunds if they so choose.
United Airlines denied boarding fiasco was a watershed
Travelers United met with DOT members of the Secretary of Transportation’s office and the Consumer Protection Division to determine what had happened to result in the beating of Dr. Dao. Inexplicably, DOT exonerated United Airlines and placed the blame for roughing up the passenger on the Chicago airport police.
Part of Travelers United’s solution to prevent these problems in the future allows passengers to know their rights. Passengers must know how to get compensation for denied boarding (or bumping) compensation, lost luggage compensation, international flight delays, and other customer service issues. These pages put up by DOT are a major step in the right direction. But they are only a start and are not enough.
Improved DOT travel rights pages help
The DOT travel rights page links nine topics directly with DOT airline consumer travel rights. These topics include:
- How to file a consumer complaint
- Bumping and Oversales
- Lost, Delayed, or Damaged Baggage
- Tarmac Delays
- Flight Delays and Cancellations
- Reservations, Fares, Ticketing, and Fees
Rules without enforcement are useless
In the case of Dr. Dao and his denied boarding, compensation resulted in no airline fines. DOT found that United Airlines’ actions did not follow DOT rules as noted on these consumer protection pages. Inexplicably, the DOT, which is the rule-maker, prosecutor, judge, and jury for aviation issues, decided to overlook its own rules.
Here are the DOT website consumer protection rules as published by DOT. In the case of any notifications with the passenger being dragged off the plane, the rules were not followed or explained to the passenger.
First, the passenger, according to immediate news reports, was not notified about why he was being selected to be removed from the flight. United Airlines initially said that he was selected “randomly.” That is against the DOT rules.
Next, Dr. Dao was never provided his denied boarding compensation rights in writing, according to witnesses and news reports, prior to being dragged off the plane forcibly. That is against the DOT rules.
Rule notification may be getting better, but enforcement is not
Travelers United is concerned that the DOT Enforcement Division is not enforcing the DOT website consumer protection regulations. DOT promulgated these rules. When our entire consumer protection system is based on DOT, which replaced the state and local legal system, there should be far more scrutiny of consumer protections.
Travel rights posters and videos at airports would help 87 percent of the travelers
Travelers United attempted to get DOT to allow posters and video displays telling passengers about their travel rights to be displayed in airports. However, DOT has not yet moved to advertise its DOT website consumer protection pages to travelers.
If rights are clear to passengers, the passengers can insist that the airlines follow the rules. Plus, passengers would know the rules, rather than having to petition the airlines for denied boarding rules in writing.
Letting consumers know their rights is the key to leveling the passenger protection playing field. The DOT Web pages are a beginning. Travelers United plans the next steps. Consumers need better enforcement and public notifications of rights at airports. Airport and boarding-pass notifications should provide rules and regulations. Only clearly stated rules will allow passengers to understand their rights.
DOT is failing to inform passengers of their international rights to compensation
A sister consumer group, FlyersRights.org, seeks to force DOT to inform passengers of their international travel rights. So far, official complaints about failures to inform passengers about international travel rights have been dismissed. The Montreal Treaty clearly notes that the airlines must provide adequate notice that passengers may be entitled to compensation for flight delays. However, DOT does not do so.
That notification is not published. However, for any leg of an international itinerary, Montreal Convention Article 19 mandates that airlines are liable for damages caused by delay. Compensation is up to SDR 5,346 (approximately US$7,000). The airline must prove it took all reasonable measures to prevent the damage caused by the delay or that it was impossible to take such measures. Baggage rules (per person) are set at SDR 1,288 (about US$ 1,700).
One of DOT’s responsibilities is the ability to make consumer protection rules. The Department serves as the state and local enforcement forum for those rules. Consumers need more notification of compensation. Plus, they need a clear road map to negotiate the process for complaint actions taken with DOT.
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.