Consumer Protection

Giving Airline Consumer Protection Advocates a Fair Hearing (Finally!)

By: Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy

Earlier this week representatives of Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Action, Consumer Reports, the Business Travelers Coalition, Flyers Rights, the National Consumers League, TravelFairnessNow, and Travelers United met virtually with Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). After the last four years in the wilderness, during which there was little action to implement airline consumer protections ordered by Congress or to significantly improve the lot of the flying public, we were heartened by Secretary Buttigieg’s obvious interest and his commitment to work with airline passenger advocates in the future.

The first item on the list of priorities we presented to the Secretary was making consumer protection a priority at the DOT. For too long, the airlines, not consumers, have been treated as the DOT’s “customers.” But, as we pointed out, the DOT is “the only sheriff in town” when it comes to protecting passengers, since states are preempted under federal law and consumers can only sue the airlines individually, in small claims court. We urged Secretary Buttigieg to publicly acknowledge that consumer protection is a priority of the DOT.

Next we brought up the issue of ticket refunds and expiring credits for flights that were canceled due to the pandemic. When airlines cancel flights, passengers are entitled to refunds, but not all everyone knows that, and last year many people were steered into accepting vouchers for future travel instead of getting their money back. That almost happened to me, but fortunately I knew better, so after wading through multiple screens on American Airlines’ website offering me a credit and not even mentioning the possibility of a refund, I finally reached a page where I could choose to get the more than $1,000 I paid for my ticket returned. Furthermore, some airlines didn’t made the refunds promptly, as required. The DOT recently took action against Air Canada for that, and hopefully more enforcement is coming.

Consumers who decided not to fly last year because of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, state stay-at-home orders, or simply out of concern about the safety of getting on a plane while an infectious disease was raging, were not entitled to refunds unless they bought refundable tickets. The airlines voluntarily offered vouchers to some of these consumers, but they may expire before they can be used because most people don’t fly very often. Considering that the airlines received billions from taxpayers to help keep them aloft during the pandemic, we urged Secretary Buttigieg to ensure that these vouchers will never expire and consumers can get refunds if they cannot or do not want to use them. The DOT has teed up a rulemaking on refunds, which will address situations in which consumers are unable to fly due to government restrictions, but that won’t provide retroactive relief to people whose money,  approximately $10 billion, the airlines are sitting on now.

Family seating was the next item on our agenda. When consumers buy plane tickets these days they are often charged extra to be able choose their seats, and if they don’t pay to do so there’s no guarantee that they’ll be seated with other family members. This has resulted in young children sitting many rows away from their parents, which is unsafe for the kids and can be aggravating for their seatmates. The DOT has dithered on this issue, citing a low number of complaints, but consumers may not think to complain about this to the agency. We told Secretary Buttigieg that families with young children must be able to sit together at no additional charge.

Finally, we spoke about the problem of seat sizes on airplanes., which the DOT has failed to address for years. People are getter larger but the seats are getter smaller. There are standards for how much space cats and dogs must be provided with on planes, but not for humans! The cramped quarters makes flying uncomfortable, can result in health problems, leads to friction among passengers, and makes safe evacuation of planes harder. We asked Secretary Buttigieg to appoint an advisory committee composed of outside experts and all relevant stakeholders to study and advise the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on minimum seat and passenger space standards and said that the FAA commence should begin a rulemaking process on these standards as soon as possible.

There were many other issues on our priorities list, but this was an excellent start. We look forward to working with Secretary Buttigieg and the DOT to improve protections for airline passengers.