Do the rules even matter when there is no enforcement action? For many travelers the answer appears to be a resounding “no” as they seek refunds from flights cancelled over the past few months.
Canada has been a particularly challenging environment for consumers, as the government ruled its airlines could refuse refunds on canceled trips, delivering future travel credits instead. But the US Department of Transportation sees things differently. Flights to or from the USA are covered by DOT and the Agency reminded airlines of their obligation to provide refunds in early April, but also made it clear that enforcement would be very limited.
And so customers are stuck. The airlines owe them money and are refusing to pay.
The DOT Complaint option
The DOT operates a website allowing consumers to register their complaints, but the Agency also acknowledges that the goal of the site is not really to solve the problems. Instead, it is about tracking trends:
Complaints from consumers help DOT spot problem areas and trends in the airline industry. Complaints can lead to enforcement action against an airline when a serious violation of the law has occurred. Complaints may also be the basis for rulemaking actions.
And, while airlines are obligated to respond to complaints filed through that channel there is no obligation to fix the problems nor any public record of the incidents.
Moreover, while in the COVID-19 era the commitment to enforcement is even further reduced:
Specifically, the Aviation Enforcement Office will refrain from pursuing an enforcement action against a carrier that provided passengers vouchers for future travel in lieu of refunds for cancelled or significantly delayed flights during the COVID-19 public health emergency so long as: (1) the carrier contacts, in a timely manner, the passengers provided vouchers for flights that the carrier cancelled or significantly delayed to notify those passengers that they have the option of a refund; (2) the carrier updates its refund policies and contract of carriage provisions to make clear that it provides refunds to passengers if the carrier cancels a flight or makes a significant schedule change; and (3) the carrier reviews with its personnel, including reservationists, ticket counter agents, refund personnel, and other customer service professionals, the circumstances under which refunds should be made.
Passengers found a new way to force airlines to respond
But it also turns out there’s another way to fight the airlines, and to make the complaints a matter of public record. The DOT maintains a docket of all actions and decisions. And there’s nothing stopping a consumer from opening up a docket filing to register a complaint, so long as it is properly formatted. Moreover, the docket filings require that airlines respond relatively quickly, an the DOT is obligated to enforce judgements.
A few individuals took that path, filing for themselves in hopes of forcing the airlines to act or the DOT to take enforcement action. The number of these complaints against Canadian carriers is rising as more travelers turn to this approach. And it just might be working. At a minimum, the airlines are engaged again with the customers as they request extensions from the DOT in the timeline to further investigate the cases.
Hoping to secure refunds for everyone
The filings are, nearly universally, specific to a single ticket or trip. But one Canadian is taking the opportunity a tep further. With claims submitted against Air Canada, Air Transat and Sunwing, Simon Cyr is hoping to win big on behalf of everyone affected by these airlines’ refusal to follow DOT policies. As Cyr explained to PaxEx.Aero:
I don’t have tickets caught up in the process. I filed the complaints for the good of the public interest… I’m just hoping to do some good for fellow consumers.
Cyr’s initial claims are, for now, in limbo. The airlines are seeking more time to respond and thus far both Cyr and the DOT complied. Responses are now due next week.
And at least a couple petitioners scored a victory, though not against a Canadian airline.
United bends under the weight of a claim
A United Airlines passenger purchased six tickets from Chicago to Orlando in February for an April trip. Not surprisingly, the trip canceled. And the flight did as well, though United rebooked the group to arrive just under three hours later.
United denied the initial refund request, noting that its policies had changed, allowing it up to six hours in time shift before it was obligated to refund the tickets. An “unofficial” DOT complaint delivered nothing more than that. But the formal complaint eventually did.
While insisting (across 9 pages of a filing) that it is still not obligated to deliver a refund to the fare to this consumer, United finally agreed to do so.
Air New Zealand similarly found itself pressed into compliance, settling an incident after the customer complaint came in, having previously refused.
Overwhelming a system?
That the system appears to be working for consumers is good news. But if this becomes the only means to realize those results and the unofficial complaint process collapses it could spell trouble for the Department. The DOT already is handling massively more complaints than normal. Forcing those into the more formal structure is not good for throughput.
Also, the Docket-based complaints often seem to involve outside counsel (i.e. paid lawyers) getting involved from the airlines. Maybe if the price of handling the cases goes up enough they’ll just start giving out the refunds owed.
Ultimately it is getting results for consumers. And that’s a good thing overall.