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How and When to File a DOT Complaint

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Getting a plane full of people and stuff from one place to another is no easy task, and mistakes are inevitable. The important consideration for travelers is how airlines respond, and what to do when that response is inadequate. Today, TPG Contributor Nick Ewen discusses one tool every frequent flyer should know how to use, the DOT complaint.

Air travel can sometimes be a frustrating experience. Between weather, mechanical problems, and poor service, there are times when you may wonder why you didn’t just stay home. Fortunately, you have options when your trips don’t go according to plan, and today I’ll look at one recourse in particular: filing a complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT).

If you encounter issues while traveling, it oftentimes make sense to contact the airline directly. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
If you encounter issues while traveling, contacting the airline directly should be your first step. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

For starters, filing a DOT complaint generally should not be your first line of defense. The DOT is not an all-encompassing agency; airlines still create their own policies and procedures, so try to find a solution with your carrier first. If that gets you nowhere (or if the issue is not resolved to your satisfaction), then you should consider filing a DOT complaint.

To illustrate this back-and-forth process, I’m going to use a hypothetical example of an airline trip where almost everything goes wrong. I’ll include examples of when it makes sense to take things up with the airline versus when you should take it to the next level and file a DOT complaint. Here’s the scenario:

Canceled Flight

You’re flying to New York to see your family for Christmas. You find a great deal for a direct flight with Imagine Airlines on a third-party site, and you lock in the trip! You arrive at the airport to discover that your flight is canceled due to mechanical issues. There’s a long line of passengers waiting to be rebooked, so you call Imagine’s customer service.

They refer you to your third-party travel agency, who in turn refers you back to the airline. Neither are willing to help, nor will they offer you a refund, so you decide to book a last-minute, one-way fare for $500 on Make Believe Airways using a different third-party site.

Pandemonium in Recife after a 1:30am flight cancellation
TPG found a HUGE line after a late-night flight cancellation in Recife.

Your decisions are challenging because of the time-sensitive nature of the problem. You need to get to your destination, and you can’t wait days (or even multiple hours) for the “he said, she said” discussion to resolve. This is somewhat similar to what TPG encountered on his trip to Recife earlier this year. His initial flight was canceled, and rather than wait in line for hours, he made his own arrangements. American Airlines ultimately reimbursed him for his out-of-pocket expenses and gave him 25,000 miles as a goodwill gesture.

Of course, TPG is Executive Platinum on American, and he had miles to spare that allowed him to book a different return flight. He also was able to cancel his return flight without any problem. In the above situation, you’re caught between an airline and a third-party booking service. You wouldn’t be the first to be in this situation, so what’s the proper procedure?

If you charged the ticket to a credit card, you have several protections under federal credit laws.
If you charged the ticket to a credit card, you have several protections under federal credit laws.

Once you’ve reached your destination, I would again take things up with the airline and request a refund. If Imagine refers you to the third-party agency, request a refund through them. If they refuse as well, I would then contact your credit card company. When you buy a ticket using a credit card, you gain certain protections within federal credit laws, including the ability to obtain a refund if the airline cancels a flight and you do not travel as a result. If you’re having trouble getting your money back, your credit card company should be able to help.

In this case, I would go ahead and submit a DOT complaint as well. The fact that you booked through a third-party vendor should not prevent an airline from refunding your money when they cancel your flight and you don’t fly.

Undisclosed Baggage Fees

When you get to the Make Believe Airlines check-in desk, you find that they charge $25 for the first checked bag. You claim that this was not disclosed in the booking process. The check-in agent can’t help, so you’re forced to pay. You’re then given a seat request card, and are informed that the plane is full and your seat will be assigned at the gate. Your boarding pass indicates that you are confirmed on the flight.

In this case, you have a clear cause for complaining to the DOT, as they require disclosure of baggage fees during the booking process. This time, I would start with the third-party booking site, as they too must disclose these fees. For example, here’s how Orbitz complies with the requirement:

Orbitz results
Orbitz indicates that baggage fees may apply.

Here are the same results on Expedia:

Expedia search results
Expedia provides an estimate of expected baggage fees.

And here’s what you would find on Travelocity:

Travelocity results
Travelocity also provides an estimate of baggage fees.

If you can prove that the third-party agency didn’t disclose this at booking (try to make a new reservation and take a screen shot), you should be entitled to a refund of those charges. If the site doesn’t comply, absolutely submit a complaint with the DOT.

Involuntarily Denied Boarding

Upon arriving at the gate, you check in with the agent, who says she’ll call you when you have a seat assignment. She’s is also asking for volunteers to give up their seats for a later flight to New York. No one approaches the desk, and the boarding process begins.

The gate area is soon almost empty, and you again ask about a seat assignment. The agent checks her computer, informs you that the plane is full, and says she needs to rebook you on the next flight to New York, which departs 3 hours and 20 minutes later. As an apology, she offers you a $50 credit off your next flight.

If you are denied boarding involuntarily, you have the right to appropriate compensation.
If you’re denied boarding involuntarily, you have the right to appropriate compensation.

Right off the bat, do not accept the $50 discount. If this happens to you, you have been involuntarily denied boarding (or IDB’d for short). Federal regulations specifically address this scenario in Title 14, §250.5. Since your new flight was scheduled to arrive more than 2 hours after the arrival of your original flight, you are entitled to compensation of 400% of your one-way fare (up to a maximum of $1300).

The carrier is allowed to substitute a voucher or discount toward a future flight instead of this compensation. However, if the airline does not disclose this option to you, the $50 discount can not be considered a substitute. If you do accept the $50 and later learn about this requirement, you should absolutely still file a complaint with the DOT and cite the aforementioned regulation.

Delays

The next flight is supposed to depart at 11:20 am, but it’s already delayed by two hours and ten minutes. You ask the new gate agent for a food voucher due to the delay, but he says that’s not airline policy. Eventually, the plane boards and pushes back from the gate at 1:50 pm.

After taxiing out to the runway, the weather changes and the airport shuts down. You sit for 2 hours until the weather passes, and then another 90 minutes goes by with no update and no food or water offered. Finally, three and a half hours after pushing back from the gate, you’re airborne and finally on your way to New York.

If your plane is delayed on the tarmac for more than 3 hours, you are entitled to get off. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
If your plane is delayed on the tarmac for more than 3 hours, you’re entitled to get off. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

This is one of the few scenarios where I would recommend filing a complaint with the DOT directly, as Make Believe Airways violated (in several ways) the new rules implemented in 2009 to prevent extensive tarmac delays. First, they didn’t offer food and water after passing the two hour mark sitting on the tarmac. Then, they didn’t give passengers the option to deplane after passing the three hour mark. Make Believe Airways should report this delay, but I would complain to the DOT as well.

Unfortunately, the denial of a food voucher is not something that should be reported to the DOT. Each airline sets its own policies for handling significant delays, and there are no federal regulations governing these policies. While a delay of over two hours (especially at a meal time) should warrant a food voucher, Make Believe Airways was within its rights to refuse your request.

Remember that you can always report unsatisfactory customer service to the airline directly, and perhaps receive some bonus miles or a discount coupon as an apology. However, the DOT has no say.

Lost Baggage

When you arrive in New York and make it to baggage claim, you find that your bags didn’t make the flight. You approach the baggage service desk and file a claim. They give you a report number and tell you they’ll keep you updated and deliver the bag when it arrives.

You purchase necessities for the trip, but the airline eventually discovers that your luggage is lost. You’re offered $200 toward a future flight; the airline claims this is the extent of their liability.

If your baggage is delayed a lost, and airline should provide some form of compensation.
If your baggage is delayed or lost, the airline should provide some form of compensation.

Delayed baggage is another gray area with the DOT. When your baggage doesn’t arrive on your flight, immediately file a claim and find out the airline’s policy for reimbursement of necessities until it arrives. Some airlines won’t provide anything for the first 24 hours, while some will provide more for elite members of their frequent flyer program. Generally speaking, you must purchase these items and then request reimbursement directly with the airline after the fact.

Lost luggage is also a gray area, though given the low offer by Make Believe Airlines, in this case you definitely have a reason to file a complaint with the DOT. Federal regulations set the liability limit at $3,400 for lost baggage on domestic flights, so if an airline claims that they can’t give you more than a $200 voucher, they’re blatantly lying.

The form for filing a complaint with the DOT is the same for service issues as well as examples of discrimination.
The DOT complaint form is the same for service issues as for examples of discrimination.

Filing the complaint

If you find yourself in any of the above situations and have decided to file a complaint with the Department of Transportation, the process for doing so is very easy. First, you’ll need to decide which category your complaint falls into:

  1. Safety and Security
  2. Airline Service Complaints and Comments
  3. Disability and Discrimination Complaints

The top category actually isn’t handled through the DOT. Instead, safety complaints should be directed to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) using this link. Concerns about aviation security should be directed to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) by calling 1-866-289-9673 or e-mailing them at TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov.

However, the other two categories do fall within the reach of the DOT. In either case, start at this site, which provides additional information for both types of complaints. You then use the same web form to file the complaint with the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. Provide as much information as possible to document your problem.

Delta
Delta was fined for improperly compensating passengers who were denied boarding in 2013.

What happens next

Once you’ve submitted the complaint, you basically wait and see. The big problem is that many policies and procedures are up to the individual airlines. In cases of egregious misconduct (like improper denied boarding compensation or misrepresentation of taxes & fees), the DOT may issue fines. Unfortunately, this is a relatively rare occurrence. It’s much more likely that the DOT will do a cursory investigation, and (when appropriate) compel the airline to offer compensation.

In addition, the DOT will add your complaint to its database and include it in monthly reports. The majority of complaints typically stem from flight problems, like delays, cancellations, or missed connections. Baggage, reservations/ticketing issues, customer service, and refunds typically round out the top five, and 2014 is already seeing an increase in consumer complaints.

AirHelp is one service that will duke it out with the airline on your behalf, though it will cost you 25% of any compensation you receive.
AirHelp is one service that will duke it out with the airline on your behalf, though it will cost you 25% of any compensation you receive.

Getting help

If you’d rather not pursue a DOT complaint on your own (or if you don’t have time to deal with it), there are companies out there that can do it on your behalf. One option is AirHelp, which investigates delays, cancellations, and instances of denied boarding for you. The process is simple: you submit your information to them, they pursue the claim with the airline (including legal action when applicable), and whatever compensation they get is sent directly to you, minus 25% for their services. If they get nothing, you pay nothing. This arrangement is similar to that of a personal injury lawyer, who only takes a fee if he or she wins your case.

The big benefit of using a service like AirHelp is that you don’t have to worry about chasing the airline yourself. However, it comes at a price. If you used AirHelp to get compensation for being denied boarding involuntarily, you’d receive $975 instead of the full $1,300 in your bank account.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, you should file a complaint with the DOT after you’ve exhausted other avenues with a given airline (or third-party booking service). Even then, you may not get the compensation you feel you deserve, but it’s still useful to bring issues to the DOT’s attention, since they can more readily identify and address behaviors that are unfriendly to consumers.

What are your experiences with filing DOT complaints?
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