Is the government doing enough to protect airline passengers?

protect airline passengers

Has the government done enough to protect airline passengers during the pandemic? It depends on which numbers you look at.

Here’s one the Department of Transportation (DOT) wants you to see: 62,780. That’s how many complaints from air travelers it handled from March through June of this year, a 1,103 percent increase from the same period in 2019.

If you were one of the passengers who contacted the DOT after an airline canceled your flight and then balked at making a refund, thank the government if you got your money back.

But other numbers also have something to tell us about how well the government has protected airline passengers. Or not. This year, the DOT has fined just five airlines a total of $1.3 million. If the number holds up — and it probably will — then the DOT will have taken even fewer enforcement actions against airlines this year than last year’s record low (eight). It will also have collected the smallest amount in airline fines since 2008.

Protecting airline passengers has never been more important

The DOT’s consumer protection efforts have never been more important. From refunds to pandemic-related mask rules, the government is solely responsible for enforcing air travel consumer protections. Federal preemption protects airlines from enforcement actions by the states. The DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection division is often passengers’ first, last and only hope for resolving a problem.

But that could be changing soon.

The government’s duty to protect airline passengers came into sharp focus this spring when airlines cancelled flights en masse as the covid-19 pandemic spread. The DOT deserves credit for how it responded, consumer advocates say. Many U.S. airlines didn’t want to offer refunds, as they must do under federal rules. The DOT issued a statement that airlines had to provide prompt refunds. It also stepped up its enforcement efforts.

“When it comes to protecting consumers who were owed refunds, the DOT has been highly effective,” says Charles Leocha, the president of Travelers United, a consumer advocacy group.

States may begin protecting airline passengers soon

But has the government done enough to protect airline passengers? Not really, according to the National Association of Attorneys General. In a letter to Congress signed by 40 state and territory attorneys general, the association urged lawmakers to enact new consumer protections for airline passengers. Among them: authorizing state attorneys general to enforce federal airline consumer protection laws.

If Congress acts, the federal government could share consumer protection responsibilities with the states in 2021. That would offer new remedies for air travelers looking for refunds or complaining about bad service.

DOT says it’s working

The DOT says it is doing everything in its power to protect airline passengers during the pandemic. A spokeswoman said the department “intends to take enforcement action against airlines that are not providing refunds to ticketed passengers when the airlines cancel a flight or make a significant schedule change.”

The spokeswoman also said the DOT has gone beyond securing refunds for travelers. For example, this year it proposed rules to better regulate travel by air with service animals and to define unfair and deceptive practices by airlines. It is also working to finalize rules on the length of time passengers can be stranded in a plane on the tarmac, compensation paid to travelers bumped from a flight because of oversales and mishandled-baggage liability limits.

Consumer advocates are less impressed by the government’s performance. They say Congress mandated much of the department’s rulemaking this year. And they say the DOT has ignored the crucial need for a mask requirement on planes during the pandemic. So far, the department has urged passengers to follow the recommendations of public health authorities. But it hasn’t issued a mask rule for air travel.

The DOT this month denied’s petition for a mask requirement. The department argued that it isn’t a public health authority, deferring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the federal agency responsible for safeguarding public health. The department also contended that airlines have sufficient mask requirements and that there should be no more government regulation than necessary.

Nearly “complete collapse” of passenger protections

Paul Hudson, the president of, says the absence of clear regulation is part of a “nearly complete collapse of aviation consumer protection enforcement by the DOT.” The current administration blocks proposed rules. Existing ones go unenforced.

“Airline passenger protection has become nearly entirely a matter of airline policies,” Hudson adds. “To the extent DOT does anything, it acts as an adviser to airlines and passengers.”

Eduardo Angeles says regulators have missed many opportunities to protect consumers. For example, the DOT has the authority to issue guidelines or regulations for temperature checks on air travelers but chose to do nothing.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation has not done enough to protect the interests of the traveling public,” says Angeles, the senior counsel in the Clark Hill law firm’s government and regulatory affairs practice.

Passengers have only a vague idea of what the government is doing to help them. Most air travelers don’t know that the DOT has the sole power to enforce airline consumer rules. The ones that do know that often feel that their complaints disappear into a black hole.

Passengers don’t know where to turn

When Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) canceled Pamela Gillet’s flight from Newark to Oslo this spring, she asked for a refund. After two months of waiting, the airline told her that refunds were taking “longer than expected.” In June, three months after applying for a refund, she contacted the DOT.

“I don’t know what the DOT is going to do with my complaint,” says Gillet, a retired schools superintendent from Winter Garden, Fla. “If it is only going to be counted as a statistic, then it’s no help at all. But if it moves forward with action against SAS, then the agency is being helpful to the consumer.”

Her case illustrates the limits of the DOT’s influence. Although it has enforcement power over any carrier operating on U.S. soil, foreign carriers sometimes ignore its requests. So far this year, the department has been particularly hard on international airlines. Three of the five enforcement orders — a total of $920,000 in fines — were against non-U.S. airlines.

One way or another, 2020 will be a defining year for passenger rights. The DOT will have worked harder than ever on behalf of air travelers. But it may also lose its job as air travelers’ sole protector.

Posted in The Navigator Tagged , , , , , ,

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Global Rescue

Global Rescue is the world’s leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services. Founded in 2004, Global Rescue has exclusive relationships with the Johns Hopkins Emergency Medicine Division of Special Operations and Elite Medical Group. Global Rescue provides best-in-class services that identify, monitor and respond to client medical and security crises. Learn more about Global Rescue.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International,, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

%d bloggers like this: