Don’t expect any Valentine’s day sweets from DOT or the airlines
I’m expecting no airline love this Valentine’s Day. After taking a look at the world of airline and DOT customer service I’ve come up with 10 ways that airlines and DOT, which enforces airline regulations, are showing no airline love for their passengers.
1. A gift of too much choice.
One way to make comparison shopping more difficult is to make consumer choices more difficult. Not only do airlines have scores of ancillary fees in addition to airfares that change several times a day, but they also make knowing the changes in those fees and airfares almost impossible to track.
2. Every fee has exceptions and exemptions.
The cost for checked baggage depends on what credit card a passenger may use to pay for those checked bags. The baggage fees also depend on with whom you may be traveling. Or, membership in a frequent flier program may factor into the costs. Perhaps passengers are paying for a seat reservation — the exceptions are even more different for elite levels of frequent fliers and the fees are higher. If you are a normal passenger expect no airline love.
3. Cancellation and change fees are unjustified.
Even the airlines have a hard time explaining why the cancellation fee for a $75 airplane ticket should be $200. Or, perhaps your international airfare costs less than the change fee. I’m sorry, but the airline line about lost “opportunity costs” is horse hockey. Unfortunately, a recent request for a rulemaking about these exorbitant fees was refused by DOT.
4. It is not our job to tell you the DOT rules.
DOT makes the rules and DOT theoretically enforces the rules. Unfortunately, the Department does not believe that part of their job is to educate the public about their rules. After repeated requests for notifications about posters and videos to be displayed at airports explaining the basic passenger compensation rules, no action has been taken.
5. Passenger compensation and complaint notices are not printed on tickets or flight itineraries.
The once ubiquitous rules about rights on airline tickets have disappeared. Travelers United has proposed a simple line be added to each ticket itinerary and a computer-generated boarding pass that states, “Compensation is available for passengers faced with denied boarding, lost/missing/delayed checked baggage, and for certain delays for flights to Europe. Complaints about airline safety and service can be filed at https://airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm“
6. Complaint response is swift; however, requests for rulemakings can take years to complete.
Justice delayed is justice denied. Complaints sent to DOT and forwarded to airlines must be acknowledged within 30 days and the passenger should be sent a “substantive” response within 60 days. Without a normal judicial system for airline passengers, there is not equal justice when airlines fail to follow rules and regulations.
7. Airline passengers face a non-competitive marketplace.
Domestic aviation is controlled by four airlines that make up more than 80 percent of the flights. International airline alliances mask the fact that only three alliances control more than 90 percent of transatlantic fights, even though it appears that there are scores of competitors. Expect no airline love when searching for lowest fares.
8. There is no airline love when it comes to more personal space on planes.
In today’s airline world, the more people that can be packed onto a plane, the more money that the airline can get from the system. So, airline seat pitch, which used to be about 36 inches, has shrunk to about 31 inches for coach passengers. Some seats are set with even less legroom — down to 28 inches of seat pitch. Seats have also become narrower as the average American has become wider. Anyone who has flown knows the result, though airlines and the FAA claim that the aircraft evacuations are tested and still meet the 90-second rule. Travelers United and other consumer groups have protested. The most recent FAA bill should provide answers.
9. Computer System Failure Compensation.
Airlines still treat computer system failures as though they are Acts of God, akin to a hurricane or a major blizzard. Even though the results may be even more far-reaching, these computer system failures are caused by the airlines themselves. Whenever airlines suffer a computer outage, their passengers bear the brunt of the pain. DOT has not yet assigned any pain to the airlines. There should be real passenger compensation for these computer system failures.
10. Families sitting together.
There is no guarantee that families can sit together on flights without paying extra. (In fact, even with seat reservations, airlines reserve the right to move passengers at their discretion.) Families cannot enjoy the savings of Basic Economy if they want to sit together today. First, they must pay to move to “main cabin.” They then pay again to reserve seats. Though Congress has passed a law mandating that families sit together without extra charges, DOT has not put the law into effect because they say it is not necessary. Sad. Whose side is DOT on?
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.