June 19, 2018 | Kendall Creighton Across the U.S., commercial air travel is the main, often the only, means of long-distance transportation. Yet the airline industry is a case study in U.S. policy gone awry. Mergers have resulted in four mega airlines with take-it-or-leave it conditions while reaping consistent record profits. It may be last major industry where service standards are steadily declining for the average customer. Today, everyone has an airline horror story. Delayed flights, canceled flights, lost baggage, uncaring customer service, ever-shrinking passenger seats, exorbitant and hidden fees, long security lines, and devalued or unusable frequent flyer miles are now undisputed facts of flying. Flyersrights.org volunteers are dedicated to restoring passenger rights, encouraging competition, and ensuring that air travel is convenient, affordable, reliable, healthy and safe. We are the only passenger rights organization with an office in Washington, D.C., a toll- free hotline (877-FLYERS6 which is 877-359-3776), and a weekly newsletter. We advise both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation on safety and passenger issues. We regularly petition the government and the courts on behalf of airline customers. Since FlyersRights was founded about 12 years ago, we’ve won several major victories. As just two examples of results from our efforts (there are lots more below), DOT regulations now require (1) higher compensation to passengers who are bumped from flights and (2) clearer, more accurate and more usefully aggregated reports by airlines on flights that are delayed, diverted or canceled. The Future ⦁ Better compensation for passengers for excessive flight delays Presently there is no meaningful compensation to passengers affected by excessive flight delays. Cancellation due to too few passengers amounts to breach of contract or fraud. Airlines need to be required to tell passengers of their delay-compensation rights, which are generally ignored or denied by the airlines. Passengers need to be entitled to ground transportation and lodging when stranded overnight by airline delays and cancellations. ⦁ The flight insurance scam Airlines offer “insurance” for flight or trip cancellation that is deceptive in that such policies fail to cover an overwhelming number of situations, and the coverage excludes inconvenience or consequential damages. For example, a passenger whose vacation or business trip is ruined cannot claim for that loss, even though a passenger generally cannot cancel a trip except in situations of serious illness or death. FlyersRights.org has received complaints on our toll-free hotline of next of kin providing death certificates and airlines still not providing a refund. ⦁ Lost and mishandled baggage issues These represent the second largest category of flyers’ complaints to the DOT. Over 40,000 checked bags per year are never returned to passengers. Instead of looking inside the bags for identifying information, most airlines treat the bags as abandoned property and auction them off with the proceeds going to the airline. The handling of lost baggage claims is scandalous with the overwhelming majority of claims being rejected and lost baggage sold after 90 days with no attempt to identify or return baggage. Theft by the airline workers, TSA officers and baggage handlers is a known problem and one that is covered up by thieves who rip identifying tags off bags that they have looted. DOT should produce a consumer report that “unbundles” mishandled baggage and lists lost, damaged and stolen items separately by airline along with the number of claims made vs. claims paid. ⦁ Frequent flyer fraud Frequent flyer programs are a source of revenue for airlines, which make deals with credit card, car rental, hotel and other businesses in low-cost efforts to build customer loyalty. Most consumers view frequent flyer programs as an important benefit and asset, seeing the miles they accumulate for future travel being obligations of the airlines. But as airlines now fill a higher proportion of their seats than ever before, and oversales have become the norm, use of non-refundable, non-changeable or highly restricted tickets has decreased the number of no-shows and has increased airlines’ profits. Currently, it is hard to predict whether passengers with reservations, much less those with award tickets, will actually get seats on increasingly full flights. ⦁ Enforcement, remedies and advocacy Airline passengers need to enforce their rights in an inexpensive way. The system today is totally lacking in accountability and transparency. Generally, complaints to airlines or DOT are ignored and compensation claims are rejected. Flyersrights.org has asked that complaints get a response in 24 hours and resolution within 3 weeks or that a small-claims-court process be mandated for unresolved consumer claims. ⦁ Hotline for airlines An airline passenger emergency hotline is sorely needed for people faced with stranding and other emergencies. Flyersrights.org has a hotline staffed with volunteers and has received thousands of calls. But it’s overwhelmed and, without more funding, unlikely to survive. DOT needs to be required to contract with one or two non-profit aviation consumer organizations to provide a true airline passenger hotline. The cost would be about half of what is now devoted to the DOT’s ineffective hotline. ⦁ Aviation security complaints TSA receives approximately 10,000 complaints a year, mostly involving rudeness by security personnel and lost property complaints. There are also widely publicized concerns of personal privacy invasions by body searches and health risks involving X-ray screening of passengers, theft, and corruption within the TSA. We need your help now more than ever to make sure your rights are protected. A Look Back In 2007 it was found that passenger strandings were far more prevalent than previously thought. FlyersRights.org began aggressively petitioning Congress during this time to pass the first wave of legislation that led to significant consumer protections: May 2008 ⦁ “Bump Fees” doubled from $200 or $400 to $400 and $800. October 2008 ⦁ Tarmac data mandate: Airlines must report tarmac data for canceled, diverted and multiple-gate-return flights. December 2009 ⦁ The 3-Hour Tarmac Rule for domestic flights eliminated the practice of long tarmac confinements (up to 12 hours) that were affecting 150,000 to 250,000 passengers per year. August 2011 ⦁ The 4-hour tarmac rule for international flights. ⦁ Refunds of baggage fees for lost baggage. ⦁ Flyers bumped from overbooked flights and stuck for hours are entitled to four times their ticket price, up to $1,300, on the spot in cash. January 2012 ⦁ Ban on post-purchase fare increases. ⦁ Ability to hold a ticket for 24 hours without a re-issuing fee. ⦁ Full Fare advertising: All fare advertising must include base fare PLUS any mandatory taxes, surcharges and booking fees. ⦁ Mandatory notification of flight delays every 30 minutes by any available method, including airport overhead announcements, visual displays, e-mail, phone, text, etc. ⦁ Baggage fees must be disclosed when making a reservation online and/or on the phone; it must bemade clear where all ancillary fee information can be found prior to booking a ticket. ⦁ Addition of “tarmac delays” wording to Contract of Carriage. April 2013 ⦁ Partnered with flight attendants union to ban knives on planes. February 2015 ⦁ FlyersRights files an amicus brief in support of the Whistle Blower Protection statute applying to the Department of Homeland Security. In MacLean v Homeland Security, the Supreme Court agreed. April 2016 ⦁ FlyersRights files an appeal (Flyers Rights Education Fund v FAA) of the FAA’s refusal to halt or regulate seat size and legroom shrinkage. In July 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to consider “comfort or routine health” concerns but granted our petition for review on the safety issue. The court said the government’s argument that seat spacing did not affect safety in an evacuation was based on “(at best”) off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters. That type of vaporous record will not do.” December 2016 ⦁ FlyersRights files an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court (Schoenebeck v KLM) in support of reversing a 9th Circuit decision refusing to recognize filing a lawsuit in another nation as meeting the two-year statute of limitations unless a case is also filed in the U.S.; the Montreal Convention governs all passenger and shipper claims against airlines in international air travel. Currently pending before the DOT are FlyersRights’ rulemaking petitions dealing with exorbitant change and cancellation fees on international flights, reinstatement of the reciprocity rule to reduce unnecessary passenger delays due to flight cancellations, informing passengers of their delay compensation rights in plain language and the U.S. bumping rule. Also, we’re collaborating with the FBI and their recent focus on curbing sexual assault on aircraft.