Apr 16, 2024 - News

Buttigieg, Colorado AG launch effort to crack down on "deceptive" airline practices

Photo illustration of Pete Buttigieg and a graphic of airplanes

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Erin Kirkland/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Flying snafus — such as dayslong delays, surprise cancellations and pricey rebookings — will now face more scrutiny under a new federal partnership with state attorneys general.

Why it matters: This is a fresh attempt to rein in airlines, which have often sought to dodge penalties tied to major service disruptions.

State of play: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday visited Denver International Airport to announce a "fast-track system" to investigate consumer complaints, hold airlines and ticket agents accountable and better protect passengers.

  • Alongside him was Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who for years has pressured the Biden administration to take the issue more seriously and extend enforcement powers to the states.

What they're saying: Passengers are reporting "thousands" of instances enduring five-day delays for rebookings, or being forced after cancellations to buy costlier tickets with another carrier without receiving refunds for the original purchase, Buttigieg said in a briefing ahead of the announcement.

  • "Things like that are a violation of passenger rights, and we are seeing far too many cases of that right now under current law," he said.

How it works: The Airline Passenger Protection Program will work with 18 state attorneys general to uncover unfair or deceptive airline practices.

  • AGs will investigate the complaints filed to their offices and decide whether they potentially violate federal aviation consumer protection requirements.
  • Those will then be escalated to the U.S. Department of Transportation for review and possible enforcement action.
  • The federal agency will provide technical assistance and training to help AG offices know what types of complaints are worth the extra scrutiny.

The big picture: In the past, airlines were not legally required to respond to state AG inquiries — only the USDOT — which has been "frustrating for consumers when we say, 'We don't have the ability here,'" Weiser told reporters.

  • But the new partnership incentivizes airlines to be responsive through a signed memoranda of understanding, which frees up federal and state resources to look out for the flying public.

The bottom line: This new structure — which gives states a "direct channel to get enforcement, whereas before … we simply had to redirect complaints" — will help "give consumers the treatment they deserve," Weiser said.

What we're watching: How airlines respond as more AGs nationwide join the effort, which Weiser predicts will happen once "they see how impactful this is."

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