Airline Consumer Protections:
Information on Selected Airlines' Non-Discrimination Training Programs
GAO-19-654R: Published: Aug 22, 2019. Publicly Released: Aug 22, 2019.
Recent high-profile events have led some to question whether airlines treat all passengers equally, despite federal laws prohibiting discrimination. In 2017, one organization issued a travel advisory (lifted in 2018) against an airline, citing "disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions" for African-American passengers.
Airlines aren’t required to provide non-discrimination training. But, representatives from 6 airlines said they provide it to employees, and 4 said they also provide the same training to contractors. Airlines tend to cover non-discrimination topics in broader training sessions, such as new employee training.
Screenshot of Part of DOT’s Airline Consumer Protection Website
Illustration of people at an airport with the tagline "Know Your Rights Before You Fly"
What GAO Found
Representatives from all six U.S. airlines GAO selected stated that they provide non-discrimination training to employees; representatives from four said they provide the same training to contractor staff who work directly for the airline. Specifically, all selected airline representatives told GAO they provide initial non-discrimination training to newly hired employees who interact with passengers—including, for example, pilots, flight attendants, and customer service representatives. Airline representatives provided high-level examples describing the content of their trainings, but with one exception, they declined to provide more specific information, citing the sensitive or business proprietary nature of such materials. Airlines have no legal requirement to provide GAO with their non-discrimination training materials.
Representatives generally stated that trainings emphasize treating all individuals fairly and without bias, regardless of race, ancestry, or religion, among other things. Representatives from four selected airlines also said that their non-discrimination trainings cover implicit bias—a term that refers to attitudes or stereotypes about groups of people that unconsciously affect a person's understanding, actions, and decisions. Non-discrimination trainings are typically embedded in larger training programs and delivered using a combination of in-person and web-based modules, according to airline representatives. Five selected airline representatives also told GAO they use available data (e.g., passenger complaints) to evaluate the effectiveness of their non-discrimination trainings and make updates as needed.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) does not require airlines to provide non-discrimination training to employees and contractors; however, officials told GAO that most larger airlines generally provide such training. DOT officials also stated that they receive few discrimination complaints relative to the millions of passenger boardings each year. Further, DOT officials said that if they were to identify an issue when reviewing passenger complaints, among various other monitoring activities, they could initiate an investigation of an airline's non-discrimination training and take enforcement action if warranted. However, representatives from non-discrimination advocacy organizations GAO interviewed identified additional actions that DOT and airlines could take to help ensure the non-discriminatory treatment of passengers, actions such as sharing non-discrimination trainings with such organizations for their input and feedback.
Why GAO Did This Study
Federal law prohibits airlines from discriminating against passengers on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, or ancestry. Nevertheless, recent high-profile events reported in the media have led some non-discrimination advocacy organizations to question whether airlines treat all passengers equally and without bias. For example, in 2017 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued a travel advisory (lifted in 2018) against one airline, citing "disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions" for African-American passengers.
DOT is responsible for ensuring that airlines adhere to federal non-discrimination laws. DOT encourages airlines to implement comprehensive non-discrimination training to help prevent and reduce incidents of unlawful discrimination. DOT has also developed and issued guidance to help airline employees and contractors understand their legal obligations not to discriminate against passengers.
The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included provisions for GAO to examine airlines' training programs on racial, ethnic, and religious non-discrimination for their employees and contractors, including how frequently airlines train new employees and contractors. This report describes selected airlines' programs for training employees and contractors on racial, ethnic, and religious non-discrimination. To understand airlines' non-discrimination training programs, GAO requested interviews and documentation from six airlines generally selected to include those with the highest number of passenger boardings and complaints of discrimination submitted directly to DOT. Representatives from five of the six selected airlines agreed to be interviewed, and one airline provided a written statement describing its non-discrimination training. Additionally, representatives from five airlines declined to provide GAO with their non-discrimination training materials, stating that their materials are business proprietary. While representatives from the remaining airline allowed GAO to attend its training, they asked GAO not to include a summary of the training in the report because it is business proprietary.
To understand DOT's oversight responsibilities, GAO conducted interviews with DOT officials and reviewed relevant documents and passenger complaint data. GAO also met with representatives from four non-discrimination advocacy organizations to gain their perspectives on airlines' non-discrimination training programs.
For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah, at (202) 512-2834 or firstname.lastname@example.org.