Business

Passengers find complaints to airlines can go nowhere fast

Airline complaints to the US Department of Transportation rose 30 percent over the past five years, according to an analysis by a consumer advocacy group.
Associated Press/File
Airline complaints to the US Department of Transportation rose 30 percent over the past five years, according to an analysis by a consumer advocacy group.

Early this month, my husband and I capped off a glorious honeymoon to South Africa by battling United Airlines for two days over our lost luggage. It wasn’t the lost luggage that upset us — we know things go wrong — it was the feeling of helplessness created by United’s indifference to our problem.

One passenger, dealing with United over a canceled flight, captured our frustrations on Twitter: “I have never been more upset and disgusted at a company than I am at @united. I’m so mad, my stomach actually hurts.”

United is among the most complained about airlines, but it is far from unique. Overall airline complaints to the US Department of Transportation rose 30 percent over the past five years, according to an analysis by US PIRG, a consumer advocacy group headquartered in Washington.

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It’s certainly not news that airline passengers feel mistreated and find air travel conditions miserable. But after years of growing complaints, high-profile incidents, and media outrage, the mystery remains: How do airlines keep getting away with it? The answer, unfortunately, is because they can.

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“Airline passengers have fewer consumer rights than any other classification of consumers,” said Paul Hudson, president of airline passenger advocacy group FlyersRights.org.

In the early 20th century, when airlines carried only mail, they were exempted from state laws protecting consumers in almost all retail transactions, and remain exempt today. The federal government regulated airlines until 1978, when it handed over control of fares, routes, and service standards (though not safety) to the industry to encourage competition and lower fares.

At first, there were more airlines, more cities with routes, and more people flying. But within the last decade, mergers have allowed four airlines — United, American, Southwest, and Delta — to control 85 percent of US flights, leaving most consumers with few options and airlines with little incentive to outperform the competition.

The system also provides little incentive for the federal government to change the rules. About $1 of every $5 spent on airline tickets goes to federal taxes, supporting the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, and local airport projects. For the feds, Hudson said, “airlines are a great cash cow.”

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So what can you do about it? First of all, know and assert the few rights that domestic airline passengers have. They include:

Lost or damaged baggage

After a decade of losses, airlines are again profitable, thanks in part to baggage and reservation change fees. Revenue from these fees, which totaled $6 billion in 2013, are up 20 percent since 2009.

In cases of lost, damaged, or delayed luggage, the Transportation Department requires a maximum of $3,400 reimbursement per passenger. Airlines that lose your luggage also must reimburse baggage fees, thanks to legislation introduced by US Representative Michael E. Capuano, Democrat of Somerville.

Delays and cancellations

After heavily publicized incidents of passengers sitting for hours on grounded planes without food, water, working toilets, or information, the Transportation Department in 2009 added rules that limit tarmac delays to no more than three hours before the airline must let passengers off the plane. It imposes fines on airlines that exceed this limit.

Within two hours, airlines must provide food, water, access to a toilet, and medical attention if needed. They also must update passengers on the status and reason for the delay every 30 minutes.

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As far as flight delays or cancellations at the airport — the biggest source of complaints from passengers — the Transportation Department says these are inevitable. It does not require airlines to compensate passengers.

Oversold flights

‘Airline passengers have fewer consumer rights than any other classification of consumers.’

Paul Hudson, FlyersRights.org 

After reducing the number of flights, airlines are flying planes near capacity. “The last time planes were this full is when they were troop carriers during WWII,” said William J. McGee, who writes about airline service and advocates for passengers for Consumers Union, the national consumer advocacy group and publisher of Consumer Reports.

Until 2000, planes flew about 50 to 65 percent full; today they fly at up to 86 percent of capacity, on average. Since airlines regularly sell more tickets than they have seats, more people get bumped from flights, McGee said.

Passengers involuntarily bumped from flights must be compensated in cash or check and receive an explanation of why they didn’t get the seat, according to the Transportation Department. Here are the basics on compensation:

 No compensation if the airline arranges transportation that gets you to your destination within an hour of the original time.

 200 percent of your one-way fare, up to $650, if the airline gets you to your destination within one to two hours of the original time.

 400 percent of your one-way fare, up to $1,300, if it takes more than two hours for the airline to get you to your final destination, or doesn’t offer alternative transportation.

But these are modest measures, consumer advocates say, and much more needs to be done to protect passengers and improve the flying experience.

For years, advocates have pushed for a passenger’s bill of rights that would expand and clearly define consume protections. Among the goals: require airlines to compensate passengers for delays and cancellations, as is done in Europe.

In the United States, we’ve come to accept that flying is torturous. But we shouldn’t. Complain to the Transportation Department. Support consumer groups lobbying to expand protections for air travelers. Call congressional representatives and urge them to pass a comprehensive airline passenger’s bill of rights,which FlyersRights.org hopes to introduce into legislation this year.

My husband and I were eventually reunited with our bags, but only after calling several times for updates — and waiting on hold for 40 minutes each time. After contacting United for a response to this story, a spokeswoman e-mailed that I was an exception, because United doesn’t lose luggage, and apologized for the inconvenience.

By today’s customer service standards, when just being heard is a struggle, it felt like a coup.

Lonnie Shekhtman can be reached at Lonnie.shekhtman@gmail.com.