Wronged by Your Airline? This Little-Known Advocate Can Help

Photo (cc) by TaymTaym

Kendra Thornton is an unlikely candidate for government aid, but when Frontier Airlines recently denied her a seat on a flight from Chicago to Denver, that’s exactly what she got.

Thornton and her three young children were headed to a ranch vacation in Missoula, Montana. When they tried to check in for their flight at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, an airline representative informed her family that they’d forfeited their seats.

“Frontier said they’d tried to contact us through our travel agency to tell us our first flight was oversold,” she says. “When they didn’t hear back, they canceled our seats.”

Thornton, who runs a Chicago travel agency and is a regularly featured expert on travel appearing on local TV, says she’s certain the airline had her email address. She had to pay an extra $2,400 to fly to Montana on another airline. Frontier refunded the unused tickets, but nothing more.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Thornton and her kids should have been offered 400 percent of their one-way fare, up to a $1,350 maximum per passenger, for being denied boarding. And it’s a little-known fact that the federal Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division helps consumers such as her.

Shift to helping individuals

For years, the U.S. Transportation Department relied on big fines to deter violations of federal law by airlines. Under the current leadership, however, the emphasis seems to be shifting to advocacy for individuals.

The agency received 15,770 consumer complaints and responded to 2,009 information requests from members of the public during the first nine months of 2015. Yet it has issued fewer fines. But it had only 14 consent orders assessing $2.4 million in civil penalties to its credit, compared with 23 consent orders and $2.6 million in penalties from 2014.

That puts the agency on track to perform the fewest enforcements and assess the lowest amount of penalties in seven years. But as far as the agency is concerned, it is responding to increasing dissatisfaction from air travelers by helping them one-on-one.

“Airline passengers have a right to be treated fairly, and the department is committed to using all the tools at its disposal to ensure that this happens,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told me. “We will continue to work with airlines to make air travel more convenient and hassle-free for consumers.”

This year’s crop of consent orders does contain some precedent-setting punishments.

Tarmac delays, lost baggage? There are laws governing that

This year, the government fined Southwest Airlines a record $1.6 million for violating federal rules involving lengthy tarmac delays. The DOT alleged that Southwest failed to offer passengers on 16 aircraft delayed at Chicago’s Midway International Airport an opportunity to deplane within three hours of arrival and didn’t have sufficient staff available to implement its tarmac delay contingency plan, which is required under federal law.

The DOT slapped Hawaiian Airlines with a smaller but significant fine for shorting customers on compensation for mishandled baggage and violating its full-fare advertising rules. The agency levied a $160,000 fine after learning that Hawaiian had a policy limiting reimbursement for damages associated with delayed baggage to $30 a day for a maximum of three days — far less than the $3,500 minimum level required by federal law.

It also dinged Hawaiian for a promotion with its co-branded credit card that offered a “one-time 50 percent round-trip companion travel discount” for flights between North America and Hawaii if consumers signed up for the card. Customers were shown a higher fare when they attempted to apply the 50 percent discount, the department alleged.

The agency also investigated a record number of civil rights cases this year — it declined to say how many — and is pursuing enforcement action in a number of them, which it expects to conclude next year.

Of note is the department’s investigation of a complaint by an Israeli citizen that found Kuwait Airways subjected him to unreasonable discrimination by refusing to sell him a ticket on a Kuwait Airways flight from New York to London on the basis of his citizenship. The DOT has ordered the airline to stop its unlawful conduct and threatened to pursue administrative or judicial action if the airline continues to refuse to comply.

Victory!

When Thornton asked me to help her recover the $2,400 ticket from Frontier, I recommended she first try contacting the DOT. (You can do it online at airconsumer.dot.gov or by phone at 202-366-2220). Her case was a clear-cut violation of federal law, so I wanted to give the agency a crack at it first.

Within hours, Thornton had a response from Doug Davis, an aviation analyst in the Aviation Consumer Protection Division’s Office of the General Counsel. Davis shared her case with Frontier. Within a week, the airline promised to refund her for the additional tickets she had to purchase.

A check arrived a few days later. Thornton says she’s thankful to Frontier for doing the right thing and glad to put the experience behind her. But, she admits, she didn’t know the DOT could help her.

“I’ve grown up in the travel industry and thought I’d seen and knew it all, but this situation stumped me. I’m grateful the DOT was able to help. It’s definitely something I’m going to pass along to my audience,” she says.

Why do airlines respond so quickly to problems such as Thornton’s — other than the reason that they may be violating federal law? Perhaps they know something passengers don’t: If they don’t, they could soon find themselves paying an even bigger fine.

Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum, or by emailing him at [email protected]

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
How to Invest in Real Estate for as Little as $500
How to Invest in Real Estate for as Little as $500

If stock market volatility has you looking for other investment options, here’s a way to diversify — even if you don’t have tons of money.

3 Good Things About Recessions
3 Good Things About Recessions

We don’t wish difficulty on anyone, but there can be an upside to a down cycle.

12 Tech Gadgets That Make Daily Life Easier
12 Tech Gadgets That Make Daily Life Easier

These products on Amazon will ease worries and simplify your routine.

5 Ways to Avoid Taxes on Social Security Income
5 Ways to Avoid Taxes on Social Security Income

Here’s how to minimize and delay the chunk that Uncle Sam claims.

9 Free Things That Used to Cost Us Money
9 Free Things That Used to Cost Us Money

Not everything is getting more expensive.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
10 Things Frugal People Never Buy
10 Things Frugal People Never Buy

If you’re a true tightwad, the mere thought of spending money on these items gives you the willies.

10 Useless Purchases You Need to Stop Making
10 Useless Purchases You Need to Stop Making

You might as well flush your money down the loo if you spend it on these things.

7 Social Security Rules Everyone Should Know by Now
7 Social Security Rules Everyone Should Know by Now

Confusion over Social Security is a shame, considering how many of us will need this money badly.

9 Shopping Mistakes to Avoid at Costco
9 Shopping Mistakes to Avoid at Costco

Are you missing out on serious savings at your favorite warehouse club?

If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It
If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

They don’t make coffee makers like this anymore.

The 16 Cars Most Likely to Last 200,000 Miles
The 16 Cars Most Likely to Last 200,000 Miles

One automaker takes half the spots on a list of the longest-lasting vehicles.

14 Things You Should Stop Buying in 2021
14 Things You Should Stop Buying in 2021

These convenient household products come with hidden costs that you might not have considered.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

Is Writing a Check Still Safe?
Is Writing a Check Still Safe?

Every time you pay by check, you hand your bank account numbers to a stranger.

6 Ways to Protect Your Retirement Accounts From Hackers
6 Ways to Protect Your Retirement Accounts From Hackers

Imagine having $245,000 stolen from your retirement account — and not being reimbursed.

8 Things You Should Replace to Improve Your Life Today
8 Things You Should Replace to Improve Your Life Today

Being frugal isn’t smart if you put off replacing these items.

This Is the Most Dependable Car Brand in the U.S.
This Is the Most Dependable Car Brand in the U.S.

This brand’s vehicles are least likely to give drivers repair headaches, according to J.D. Power.

7 Social Security Benefits You May Be Overlooking
7 Social Security Benefits You May Be Overlooking

There’s more to Social Security than retirement benefits.

13 Amazon Purchases We Are Loving Right Now
13 Amazon Purchases We Are Loving Right Now

These practical products make everyday life a little easier.

7 Hidden Sections of Amazon Every Shopper Should Know
7 Hidden Sections of Amazon Every Shopper Should Know

These little-known departments of Amazon are gold mines for deal-seekers and impulse shoppers alike.

7 Income Tax Breaks That Retirees Often Overlook
7 Income Tax Breaks That Retirees Often Overlook

Did you realize all these tax credits and deductions exist — or that they apply to retirees?

The 6 Best Investing Apps for Beginners
The 6 Best Investing Apps for Beginners

If you’re looking to ease into investing in the coronavirus economy with just a little money, check out these easy-to-use tools.

7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

Homeowners Say These 2 Kitchen Appliance Brands Are Best
Homeowners Say These 2 Kitchen Appliance Brands Are Best

One brand takes five of the top honors, while another ranks highest in three categories.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.