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 FlyersRights.org’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 FlyersRights.org, 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.

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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.

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