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August 2003
Flying the Unfriendly Skies—Part Two

   As I mentioned in last month’s column, my luck has not been particularly good with airlines. Tomorrow I am flying to Michigan and I hope not to encounter significant delays or a flight cancellation, which have become all-too-common occurrences in my travels.

   Two readers from Ettrick, Wisconsin, wrote to say they too have been “flying the unfriendly skies.” They experienced cancelled flights twice in Minneapolis because, they observed, there were not enough passengers for the La Crosse-bound flight. They also had clothing and luggage damaged on a separate flight.

   Under federal law, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is solely responsible for reviewing and acting on consumer complaints relating to airlines. A bill to give states such authority—a move that I supported as Wisconsin’s top consumer protection official (but which the airlines strongly opposed)—failed to pass Congress in 1999. A major reason for my support was that USDOT only had a few investigators to review many thousands of complaints. The state could have helped. After all, we had considerable experience resolving many other types of consumer complaints and, overall, this might have left consumers with a higher general opinion of the airlines.

   Partly in response to the federal legislation and a rising tide of consumer complaints, the 14 major airlines created customer service plans in September of 1999. The plans detail what the airlines will do in such areas as:

  • notifying passengers of known flight delays and cancellations,
  • meeting customers’ essential needs during long on-aircraft delays,
  • allowing reservations to be held or tickets to be refunded within 24 hours of purchase, and
  • being more responsive to customer complaints.

   You can judge how the airlines are doing. If you are unhappy and want to complain, you can call, write, or e-mail USDOT. Phone 202-366-2220 at any time to record your complaint. Due to staffing limitations, USDOT will not return phone calls. Letters and e-mails will be reviewed, acknowledged, and, when appropriate, forwarded to an airline official for further consideration. USDOT’s mailing address is: Aviation Consumer Protection Division, U.S. Department of Transportation, 400 7th Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590. The e-mail address is airconsumer@ost.dot.gov.

Be brief and concise in the description of your problem and be sure to include your name, address, daytime phone number (including area code), name of the airline or company about which you are complaining, flight date, flight number, and origin and destination cities of your trip. If you write, you should also include a copy of your airline ticket (not the original) and any correspondence you have already exchanged with the company.

Important pressure can be brought on the airlines through your complaint. After all, it just might be your complaint that makes service better for all of us.

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