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It's the complaints, Stupid

When an airline does you dirt or fails you, complain -- not just to the airline, but to the Department of Transportation, too. That's the clear take-away I get from recent exploration of airline issues. Although the DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division and a Director of Consumer Advocacy have what sound like very broad mandates, much of the focus at DOT seems to be on its longstanding consumer complaint process. That means, at least for now, that the best way for you to give DOT a shove in the direction of solving airline consumer issues is to submit complaints.

This conclusion is based, to a large part, on the results of proposals for rulemaking submitted by an assortment of consumer advocates. One of the most recent came from FlyersRights, one of the most influential independent consumer groups that advocate for air travelers. It submitted a petition for rulemaking -- asking DOT to act -- to limit unreasonable exchange fees on airline tickets for international travel. DOT has legal authority to do so: Although the Deregulation Act removed federal oversight of fees in domestic travel, it did not remove DOT from authority over international fees. Longstanding legislation requires that such fees be "reasonable," and Flyers Rights and other consumer advocates contend that current fees, which can approach $1000, are clearly unreasonable.

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DOT rejected the proposal, using the basic argument that the Department had received very few consumer complaints about unreasonable international ticket-exchange fees and, that it therefore saw no reason to act. I've observed similar rejections on other valid requests for regulatory relief.

To be fair, DOT has occasionally used similar reasoning to the benefit of consumers. Decades ago, before deregulation -- so long ago that I can't find anything about it on the Internet -- DOT ruled that airline ticket discounters could continue to sell discounted tickets, in violation of existing regulations, because "nobody was getting hurt." Sadly, in recent years, this rationale has apparently been applied to benefit airlines more than consumers.

"We won't do anything unless people complain" seems to me to be, to put it kindly, an unusual approach to rule enforcement. But if that's the way the system works, use it. When you have a problem with an airline, certainly let the airline know. But also submit a complaint to DOT.

Make sure your complaint has a focus on something the airline is really doing wrong. If your flight is delayed or canceled, that, of itself, is not a reason for a complaint; stuff happens. But if the airline fails to keep you informed, or if it does not provide appropriate assistance and compensation, or if its rules treat you unfairly, then you have a legitimate gripe. When an airline delays your trip substantially, existing European and proposed new Canadian rules require that the airline provide compensation -- real euros or dollars, not just blather. So far, in the United States, the only compensation specified by rules is in the case of bumping due to overbooking and baggage loss or damage. Anything else you might get depends on what an airline voluntarily puts in its contract of carriage, and those contracts are notoriously one-sided.

I'm not in favor of comprehensive re-regulation: Deregulation has brought plenty of consumer benefits. But airlines are notoriously deaf to consumer pain points, and the marketplace has clearly failed to correct some important consumer abuses. For now, the only way to fix those abuses is apparently government intervention.

You can submit complaints to DOT online at

, by phone at 202-366-2220, or if you still use snail mail, to Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20590.

DOT seldom acts to resolve on most individual complaints. But submitting a complaint helps build a case for possible future action. And it has the added benefit of counting against an airline in DOT's statistical complaints reports, which are routinely used in airline scoring systems.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at

. Also, check out Ed's new rail travel website at

.)

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