Are Airlines Deliberately Making It Too Difficult To File Complaints?

When you ask someone “How was your flight?” you never expect to hear too many positive things. At best, you’ll get an “Oh, fine,” but often the question will spark a detailed list of everything that went wrong. And yet, only about one out of every 43,000 air travelers in the U.S. ever file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. And airlines aren’t exactly leaping at the chance to tell customers how to file this sort of complaint.

Since 2012, federal law has required airlines in the U.S. to post the phone number (202-366-2220) and the URL for the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division, along with the airline’s email address, phone number, and mailing address for filing complaints.

While this law is well-intentioned, it’s also incredibly vague — saying only that the airline must publish is somewhere on its “Internet Web site.”

We couldn’t find the information listed — let alone clearly linked — on any of the homepages for the country’s biggest airlines.

Subsequent searches for terms like “aviation consumer protection” turned up well-hidden pages like this one on JetBlue.com, buried deep in the Help section. Over at United.com, the DOT complaint info is not in the “Customer Commitment” section, or even in the contract of carriage, but on the not-at-all-common-sense location of the website’s “Terms, Conditions, and Legal Notices.”

Likewise, while Delta has a page for filing a “complaint/compliment,” that page does not link to the DOT complaint info. Instead, the only apparent place you’ll find the DOT contact info is hidden in the “Air Carrier Access Act” drop-down section of Delta’s “Travelers With Disabilities” page.

Congresswoman Janice Hahn recently told the L.A. Times that her staff did similar searches on airline websites and turned up equally bizarre results, like Spirit burying the DOT complaint info on page 48 of its contract of carriage, or American putting it under the heading of “Consumer Service Plan.”

“I searched for the hotline number myself on different airline websites and couldn’t find it anywhere,” Hahn told the Times. “If I can’t find it, I am assuming many other fliers can’t find it either, and the data demonstrates that.”

The lawmaker recently introduced an amendment to the current FAA funding bill that would tweak the existing law to add the requirement that the DOT information must be posted “in a prominent
place on the homepage” of the airline.

“Consumers should know that we have their backs,” said Rep. Hahn in a statement. “We already have a system in place, let’s just enforce it.”

The amendment made it through the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week. So now it’s a game of wait-and-see to find out if airline-backed lawmakers try to rip out this minor but decidedly pro-consumer requirement.