In case you hadn’t noticed and honestly how many of us really pay attention to such things, there is a new sheriff in town, okay, maybe not a sheriff but the Department of Transportation (DoT) has certainly made some big changes in the way it does business. In the past year, it has handed out more fines to the airline industry than it had in any of the previous 5 years. Most of the fines were levied for violations relating to safety and advertising, yes, the DoT has been after the airlines to tell the truth in their ads. You know the ads that say fly from New York City to Honolulu for $99.00* one way. And when you finally find the information listed under the asterisk it has something about based on a round trip fare, plus taxes, fees and surcharges. Late last year the DoT fined United for misleading advertising and they just caught them again. So what you say, well, I have to agree with you to a degree, the amounts aren’t big enough to really hurt however I think that they are an indication of which way the wind is blowing.
If that were the only thing happening at the DoT, I wouldn’t be too excited about it. The really big change is their approach to consumer complaints. This website allows consumers to file an electronic complaint with the DoT instead of sending one in via the mail. It also has links to allow you to review the monthly data about the airlines performance, or the contact information for each airlines customer relations manager or my favorite one, instructions on how to take an airline to small claims court. This one is especially interesting since the airlines have always maintained that they are immune from action in anything but Federal Court because they are covered by the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. With the Federal Government saying that it’s okay to take them to small claims court I have to wonder what the result will be.
What does all of this mean for you, the traveler? I think the biggest thing is that the DoT has become a little more consumer friendly and less aloof and removed from what impacts the individual consumer. This should lead to a better balance between the airline industry and the consumer.