Department of Transportation

What did federal agencies do for travelers in 2013?

Oleksly Mark/Shutterstock
Oleksly Mark/Shutterstock
Ask travelers what the federal government did for them this year, and you’ll probably get a shrug, at best — or a rant about sequestration, national park closings and the Transportation Security Administration, at worst.

But there’s actually a specific answer: Federal agencies did a lot more than you might think. And, in at least one prominent case, a lot less.

When it comes to consumer protections, two agencies carried much of the water in 2013: the Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees airlines and motorcoach safety in the United States, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has a broad jurisdiction ranging from time-share sales to hotels. This year, the U.S. Department of Justice also played a central role in protecting travelers with a halfhearted attempt to block the creation of the nation’s largest airline.
Continue reading…

Are lax rules slowing down airline ticket refunds?

Kathleen and Eugene Bianucci paid $5,770 for a pair of round-trip tickets between San Francisco and Dublin this year on Virgin Atlantic Airways. A few days before their trip, Kathleen, a fitness instructor from San Bruno, Calif., broke her leg and had to be hospitalized for a week. Her doctor grounded her for six months, and when she told the airline about the accident, a representative promised her a full refund.
Continue reading…

Tarmac delays, R.I.P.? Don’t bet on it

Did the federal government just kill tarmac delays?

You could be forgiven for thinking so after reading this morning’s news release from the Transportation Department, which declared that for the first time since it began keeping records on tarmac delays, it recorded no delays of more than three hours in October. That’s down from 11 flights in Oct. 2009.

There’s no word on delays of less than three hours, although it seems our attention is likely to focus on them soon.

I’ll skip the Ray LaHood soundbite. Needless to say, the DOT is pleased with itself.

But did it just kill tarmac delays? I wouldn’t be so sure.
Continue reading…

“The Department of Transportation has used a bazooka to kill an ant”

The long-awaited sequel to this summer’s controversial tarmac delay study has just been released. In it, aviation analysts Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks claim 384,000 more passengers were stranded by cancellations last summer, and an additional 49,600 air travelers experienced gate returns and delays. It calls on the Transportation Department to clarify its three-hour turnback rule — a rule the DOT insists is a resounding success.

I asked Jenkins about the study and its conclusions this morning. Here’s our interview.

You’ve analyzed flight cancellations based on last summer’s data. What’s the bottom line for passengers?

If it’s summer, and there’s a thunderstorm, and your flight is canceled because of this rule – and last summer, load factors were 90 percent or higher – it will take a full day to rebook you on another flight.
Continue reading…

No more lawsuit limits for passengers under proposed government rules

Editor’s note: This is part eleven in a series about the Transportation Department’s sweeping new airline passenger protection rules. You can read the entire document here (.DOC). Please take a moment to comment on these proposed rules at The future of air travel depends on it.

As someone who is currently being sued, you might think I’m the last person who would support a new rule that would allow more people to file a lawsuit against an airline.

But you’d be wrong.

True, getting sued is no fun. But I don’t think the airlines are having fun, anyway. Maybe their passengers will after this passes.

At issue is something called a choice of forum. Forum choice, in the legal sense, is a clause that allows the the parties to agree that any litigation resulting from a contract will be initiated in a specific court.
Continue reading…

Airlines must “promptly” notify passengers of flight delays under proposed rule

Editor’s note: This is part ten in a series about the Transportation Department’s sweeping new airline passenger protection rules. You can read the entire document here (.DOC). Please take a moment to comment on these proposed rules at The future of air travel depends on it.

If you’ve ever experienced a flight delay — and who hasn’t? — then you know that getting reliable updates from your airline can take an Act of Congress.

Actually, make that a federal rulemaking.

The Transportation Department wants to require airlines to give their passengers information on flight status changes through whatever means they use — including electronic messaging services, flight status tools, departure and arrival boards at airports, and gate attendant announcements — within 30 minutes of when that information either becomes available to the carrier or should have become available to the carrier.
Continue reading…

Is the Transportation Department about to turn up the heat on airlines?

Are the government’s airline cops about to get tough on crime? The Department of Transportation says it is, and now there’s new evidence that it’s following through.

The first is a small fine against an airline with big implications. The second is a little-noticed plan to overhaul some important rules for air travelers — presumably in their favor.

Taken together, these developments have DOT-watchers and consumer advocates wondering if air travel is about to improve for everyone.
Continue reading…

Is the Transportation Department really “open”? No, but it’s getting there

The Department of Transportation yesterday claimed to be a leader in the administration’s open government initiative, which is supposed to transform the federal bureaucracy into a “transparent, collaborative, and participatory government” that touches the lives of citizens.

While it’s not there yet, I think — I hope — it’s well on its way.

I’ve already raved about DOTs new complaint site for air travelers, and some of the encouraging responses readers have reported from using the page. I’m not entirely sure if that’s what the DOT means by openness. The department has a section on its site dedicated to its open government project, and it describes its efforts in ways only a bureaucrat can fully appreciate:

The Department of Transportation’s Open Government Plan development process follows a strategic methodology designed to guarantee the creation of meaningful programs that will fulfill the Administration’s stated goals of increasing transparency, participation, and collaboration between the Federal government and citizens.

Continue reading…

The ultimate punishment? Internet travel agency faces record fine for advertising violations

keyboard1The online travel agency Ultimate Fares faces $600,000 in government fines for failing to include taxes and service fees in its airfares, a U.S. Department of Transportation Administrative Law Judge has ruled. The fine would be the largest ever assessed for advertising violations, according to regulators.

Ultimate Fares is no stranger to complaints. You don’t have to look far to find customers who call it “101% fraud” and accusing it of having a “very bad reputation.”

But now the government is taking action.
Continue reading…

Delta and United face steep fines for codesharing, denied-boarding violations

deltaIn a surprise move, the Department of Transportation has fined two airlines for failing to disclose codesharing flights and disregarding their denied-boarding rules. United Airlines faces $80,000 in penalties for neglecting to inform travelers that certain flights were operated by another airline. And Delta Air Lines is being fined $375,000 for bumping passengers from its flights without compensation.

Here’s the consent order for Delta (PDF) and United (PDF).

The backstory is interesting.
Continue reading…

Government says airlines are responsible for valuables checked on international flights

When Pina Belfiore-Benvenuto’s bags were lost on a recent flight from New York to Paris, the missing contents included a digital camera and a watch — two items that her airline’s contract of carriage exclude from liability. And to absolutely no one’s surprise, her carrier told her she was out of luck.

Maybe it shouldn’t have.

A recent Transportation Department guidance statement on airline baggage liability and responsibilities (PDF) says those blanket disclaimers are out of line with international law.

We have become aware of tariff provisions filed by several carriers that attempt, with respect to checked baggage, to exclude certain items, generally high-cost or fragile items such as electronics, cameras, jewelry or antiques, from liability for damage, delay, loss or theft. A typical provision found in carrier tariffs and disclosed on carrier websites states that the carrier does not assume liability for loss, damage, or delay of “certain specific items, including: . . . antiques, documents, electronic equipment, film, jewelry, keys, manuscripts, medication, money, paintings, photographs . . . .”

Such exclusions, while not prohibited in domestic contracts of carriage, are in contravention of Article 17 of the Montreal Convention (Convention), as revised on May 28, 1999.

In other words, an airline can continue to refuse to compensate passengers for lost items that are considered “valuables” on domestic routes. But not internationally. Specifically,

Article 17 provides that carriers are liable for damaged or lost baggage if the destruction, loss or damage” occurred while the checked baggage was within the custody of the carrier, except to the extent that the damage “resulted from the inherent defect, quality or vice of the baggage.”

Article 19 provides that a carrier is liable for damage caused by delay in the carriage of baggage, except to the extent that it proves that it took all reasonable measures to prevent the damage or that it was impossible to take such measures. Although carriers may wish to have tariff terms that prohibit passengers from including certain items in checked baggage, once a carrier accepts checked baggage, whatever is contained in the checked baggage is protected, subject to the terms of the Convention, up to the limit of 1000 SDRs (Convention, Article 22, para.2.)

Carriers should review their filed tariffs on this matter and modify their tariffs and their baggage claim policies, if necessary, to conform to the terms of the Convention. In addition, carriers should ensure that their websites do not contain improper information regarding baggage liability exclusions applicable to international service.

Belfiore-Benvenuto should have received compensation for her lost camera and watch, and so should you if your domestic airline loses your checked valuables on an international flight.

Who gives a hoot about 14 CFR Part 234? You should

Five people. That’s how many bothered to comment on the Transportation Department’s latest rulemaking proposal that would force airlines to report more details about delays. If you’re not shocked – no, outraged – by that number, read on. You will be.

You don’t have to be an inside-the-beltway politician to or a policy wonk to know why the proposal, which was quietly released for public comments on Nov. 20, is critically important. The proposed rule would have required airlines to report complete on-time and tarmac delay data about flights that may depart from a gate more than once, flights that are canceled after having left the gate and flights that are diverted to another airport.

Do we really need a history lesson?

So who bothered to comment?

A joint comment was received from the Air Transport Association of America (ATA) and the Regional Airline Association (RAA), representing 18 air carriers currently reporting performance data. Other comments were received from Delta Air Lines, the National Business Travel Association (NBTA), the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, and from five private citizens/airline consumers.

Translation: the government heard a lot from special interest groups — and a little from travelers.

Very little, in fact. It appears at least two of the comments were submitted by what I like to call airline apologists.

Of the five citizen comments, two stated that airlines should report all delays and publish their delay data on their websites, and one stated that the Department should fine air carriers $1 million for their first lapse in reporting.

That leaves two unaccounted for, and knowing what I do about this process, I have to assume the worst. But I digress.

How is it that only five citizens bothered to speak up?

First, finding out about a proposed rulemaking is incredibly difficult. You have to query this page on the BTS Web site. No rulemaking notices are sent to the public, as far as I can tell.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the government doesn’t want us to comment on its proposed rule changes. Maybe it prefers to hear from special interests and a handful of civic-minded individuals.

Fortunately, this rule change passed.

But I’m appalled. Yes, I think that’s the right word. Appalled.

If the deeply disgruntled airline passengers I deal with every day had an opportunity to share their thoughts on the Transportation Department’s rulemaking initiatives, I believe they would. And I believe they should.