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Know Your Rights: The DOT’s Updated Consumer Website

SmarterTravel

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) recently updated “Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement” website provides easy access to just about all the information available on your “rights” as an air passenger. And although the content is generally the same as before, it’s quite a bit more accessible. Of the six main options in the opening menu, three are of greatest use to most travelers.

File a Complaint. By now you probably know that DOT accepts complaints from individual travelers, sorts and tabulates them, and posts monthly and yearly statistical reports. The new site leads you directly to an online form for submitting a complaint—obviously the simplest and easiest way to have your say. Complaints get tabbed into one of 12 categories: baggage, flight problems, customer service, reservations/ticketing/boarding, refunds, disability, fares, other (including frequent flyer), oversales, discrimination, advertising, and animals.

If nothing else, DOT scores your complaint against the offending airline. In some cases, DOT goes beyond mere tabulation: If individual consumers show that an airline is directly violating one of DOT’s consumer rules, the agency often takes the complaint up with the airline and tries to resolve it.

Consumer Report. That’s what DOT calls its statistical summary, and you can easily access it. DOT scores airlines for customer complaints per 100,000 passengers, plus the hard data it collects on flight delays, mishandled baggage, oversales, security reports, and animal incidents. You can easily link to reports covering the last 10 years, with tabulated details beyond what you’d even need.

Travel Tips and Publications. In addition to statistical compilations, DOT issues several publications that, in all, pretty well describe your “rights” as an airline passenger and also provide more general, nongovernmental suggestions about being a savvier consumer.

Among the most important:

  • “Plane Talk” covers coping with delays, travel with animals, baggage tips, getting the best airfares, frequent flyer programs, and other similar subjects. Although the advice here is generally quite well known, DOT summarizes it well.
  • “Fly Rights” is the most cogent government source of information available about exactly what rights you have, legally, and what you don’t. DOT keeps it up-to-date pretty well; I often refer to it when travelers ask me about a problem.
  • “Tell it to the judge” fascinates me: Here’s a U.S. government agency advising consumers about how to file against an airline in small claims court. It’s one of the most cogent “how to do it” instruction about small claims court I’ve ever seen, and a must-read for anyone whose complaint is being stonewalled by an airline (or any other travel supplier, for that matter).
  • “When Kids Fly Alone” covers the ins and outs of unaccompanied minor travel.
  • “Airline Consumer Contacts” provides a list of names, mail addresses, and phone numbers of individuals responsible for addressing consumer complaints at 18 larger U.S. airlines. Unfortunately, most of the email addresses are general to the airline, not to its consumer office, and several lines, including Allegiant, Spirit, and USA 3000 are not included.

The site also provides extensive links to information for disabled travelers.

The other three main-menu items are less useful. The “Rules, guidelines, and enforcement orders” section refers to only the most general coverage. For detail, you have to follow a trail of links or go elsewhere. “Aviation Safety and Security” links to appropriate TSA and FAA offices, but provides no direct guidance. And “service Cessations/Bankruptcy,” fortunately, covers situations that have impacted few travelers in recent years.

Overall, despite some gaps, this site is an excellent place to start any time you have a question about an airline problem or your rights as a passenger. Take a look at the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement website. Too bad that we don’t have comparable rights—and comparable online websites—covering hotels, cruises, rental cars, and package tours. In those areas, you’re pretty much on your own, although you’ll certainly want to read “Tell it to the judge.”

What do you think of the DOT’s updated Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement website? Is the information helpful? Do you think you’ll use this resource in the future? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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