CUSTOMER SERVICE PLANS Overview:
Since April, airlines are supposed to have a “customer service plan” explaining what they will do for passengers in areas like ontime baggage delivery, handling customer complaints, services when flights are canceled, etc. But each airline was free to decide exactly what it would do in these areas. Some airlines came up with good plans — others didn’t. And the requirement didn’t apply at all to foreign airlines. Now DOT Department of Transportation is considering telling airlines exactly what services consumers are entitled to, and extending the requirement to many foreign carriers.
This post will tell you more about what the problems have been, and what solutions DOT Department of Transportation is considering — and alert you to questions DOT particularly wants people to comment on.
Although US carriers now must have “customer service plans” informing consumers how the carrier will deal with several key passenger rights issues, federal law doesn’t specify what airlines must do in those situations. Some airlines’ have done good plans, but others are so vaguely written that passengers still don’t know how the carrier will handle the problem — and whether the carrier has fulfilled its promises.
Also, the plan requirement applies only to US airlines. Many travelers fly to and from the US on flights operated by foreign carriers (either directly or through a code-share arrangement with a US carrier). It’s not clear whether foreign airlines generally have some similar plan that protects travelers when problems occur.
Finally, although DOT Department of Transportation told US carriers that their customer service plans ought to be included in the airline’s contract of carriage, many carriers haven’t done this. The contract of carriage is the legally binding agreement between the airline and passengers, which the airline has to make available to consumers. DOT can enforce compliance with the plan requirements in any case, but consumers can enforce the contract of carriage themselves (including suing in small claims court, if necessary.)
Related to consumers enforcing the contract of carriage, some airlines have included a term in the contract that forces passengers to sue in a court somewhere very inconvenient, rather than in the court where the passenger lives.
DOT is thinking about setting specific standards that airlines must commit to in their customer service plans. It is also considering applying the plan requirement to foreign carriers who use any aircraft that seat 30 or more people (even if a particular flight uses a smaller plane.)
From reviewing many existing plans, DOT Department of Transportation considers the following as industry “best practices” that should perhaps be required from all covered carriers:
- Offering the lowest fare available — The airline would always have to tell prospective travelers what its lowest available fare is, whether the consumer is using the airline’s website, is at the ticket counter, or calls the airline’s reservation number.
- Notifying consumers of known delays, cancellations, and diversions — See Flight Status Information.
- Delivering baggage on time — The airline must make “every reasonable effort” to deliver mishandled bags within 24 hours; it must compensate passengers for reasonable expenses caused by the delay.
- Allowing a period when reservations to be held, without payment or cancellation penalty — The airline must let consumers make and “hold” a reservation at the quoted fare for at least 24 hours before payment, and allow cancellation without charge during that time.
- Providing prompt ticket refunds — Refunds must be made within 20 days of when the refund request is completed.
- Properly accommodating disabled and special-needs passengers, including during tarmac delays — See Tarmac Delay.
- Meeting customers’ essential needs during lengthy on-board delays — See Tarmac Delay.
- Handling oversales/bumping with fairness and consistency — See Ticket Oversales/Bumping.
- Disclosing important aspects of travel — The airline must disclose cancellation policies, frequent flyer rules, aircraft configuration, and lavatory availability on its website and, the the traveler requests, by its reservations line staff.
- Notifying consumers in a timely manner of changes in their travel itinerary.
- Ensuring good customer service from code-share partners — Airlines must make sure their code-share partners have adopted their own service plan, or have comparable service plans.
- Ensuing responsiveness to customer complaints — See 14 CFR Code of Federal Regulations 259.7
- Identifying services available to help passengers when flights are canceled or connections missed.
DOT has a lot of open questions about other possible “minimum standards” it should require carriers to include in their plans. See the next section.
Finally, DOT Department of Transportation is considering requiring (rather than just strongly suggesting) that the customer service plan be included in the the airline’s contract of carriage. And it might now make clear that it’s an unfair and deceptive practice for the airline to try to prevent passengers from suing in the courts of the place where they live.
Is it workable to have a single set of minimum customer service standards, set by the federal government, that apply to all airlines?
Are there additional standards DOT Department of Transportation should be considering? These might include:
- Requiring carriers to reimburse passengers whose bags are not delivered on time or lost, for any baggage charges the passenger paid.
- Defining a specific time period after which a bag is considered to be not delivered on time (e.g., on the same or earlier flight; within 2 hours of arrival)
- Requiring the carrier to refund ticket costs — including for non-refundable tickets — when a passenger chooses not to travel due to flight cancellation or significant delay. Should DOT Department of Transportation define “significant” delay (e.g., 3 hours on flights no more than 2 hours long; 4 hours on longer flights).
- Spelling out that refunds must include not only the base ticket price but also any optional fees (e.g., baggage, fees) that the passenger paid
- Requiring carriers to disclose the history of a particular flight — e.g., it is chronically late or frequently canceled — before a ticket is purchased.
Are any of the proposed minimum standards particularly inappropriate for foreign carriers? Do similar plans already exist for most foreign carriers? Should plan requirements never apply to flights with fewer than 30 seats?
If airlines were required to make their plans part of the contract of carriage, would the result ultimately be worse for consumers because airlines might make fewer promises in their plans if they feared being legally liable for not following the plan in unpredictable situations?
Is there any good reason to let airlines restrict where passengers can sue to enforce their rights?