Does an airline owe passengers a refund if their in-flight wifi doesn’t deliver? Currently that answer is murky. And at least one connectivity provider objects to language used in US Department of Transportation efforts to enact some consumer protection rules around their services.
The DOT recently requested feedback on plans to enact refund rules related to delayed (paid) checked bags and ancillary services that are not provided. The DOT lists advance seat selection, access to in-flight entertainment system, in-flight beverages, snacks and meals, pillows and blankets and seat upgrades as some of the covered services. In-flight WiFi service is also referenced in the document:
[W]hen a passenger pays for wi-fi service on a flight, if the service is available to all passengers who purchased the wi-fi service, but a particular passenger is unable to use the service due to issues with a personal device, or the passenger simply decides to not use the service, there would be no requirement to refund the fee paid by that passenger.
And while that specific example shows a case where a passenger would not be entitled to a refund, it implies a refund would be due should the system be non-functional.
Faced with the possibility of being forced to promptly refund passengers when its services malfunction, Panasonic Avionics filed a comment in the docket requesting that it, and other 3rd party service providers, be treated slightly differently under DOT policies.
The basis for the objection is not entirely unreasonable. In cases where a passenger contracts directly with Panasonic Avionics for the wifi session, the company believes it should be wholly responsible for the customer service functions, including handling of refunds:
To put it simply, many carriers are not satellite network operators or telecommunication service providers; therefore, requiring a covered carrier to refund an unhappy passenger for a telecommunication service will result in excessive and unnecessary expenditure of resources.
A passenger connected to the Panasonic Avionics WiFi on a United Airlines flight, for example probably doesn’t know that Panasonic is the underlying provider, as United collected the payment. In that case the traveler would go to United for a refund, in line with the DOT’s proposed guidance.
That same passenger on a Lufthansa long-haul flight, however, might also not know they’re on a Panasonic connection. But they wouldn’t go to the airline for the refund. Instead, under the proposed revision, they’d contact T–Mobile Germany, as that’s who handles the payments.
And maybe that’s a good thing??
Keeping the airline out of refund processing where it is not party to the transaction makes plenty of sense. After all, the airline should not have to refund money it never collected. On the flip side, figuring out how to chase down that refund once off the plane can be a challenge, especially for an infrequent customer.
And taking away the protections of the DOT could lead to a more challenging refund request process overall, as Panasonic expects the “right to a refund will be governed by the terms and conditions of sale between the third-party provider and the passenger, with the third-party provider being governed by the consumer protection regulations of its applicable industry.”
For its part, Panasonic Avionics notes that it does provide refunds promptly when it is the direct retailer of the service and does not expect that policy to change, regardless of how the DOT finalizes the rules.
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