Air Travel:

Passengers Could Be Better Informed of Their Rights

RCED-91-156: Published: Aug 12, 1991. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 1991.

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Kenneth M. Mead
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed airline passengers' rights regarding lost baggage, overbooked flights, and delayed, cancelled, or diverted flights.

GAO found that: (1) between January 1, 1990, and September 30, 1990, the rate of mishandled baggage reports was about 7 per 1,000 passengers and the rate of cases of involuntarily denied boarding was about 1 case per 10,000 passengers; (2) all major airlines' contracts of carriage parallel Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations on baggage and overbooking rules, but their provisions vary for rights that DOT regulations do not cover; (3) no major airlines are liable for failing to operate a flight on schedule or for changing flight schedules, but many airlines' contracts grant certain amenities and services to passengers whose flights are cancelled or delayed; (4) DOT regulations permit airlines to incorporate key contract elements without stating their full text, but requires airlines to provide copies of any portion of the contract for public inspection at airports and ticket offices; (5) passengers may not be well informed of their rights and obligations, since some contract terms and conditions are complex and difficult to understand; (6) DOT complaint data showed that over half of consumer complaints from fiscal year 1985 through fiscal year 1990 were related to flight delays and baggage problems; (7) consumer complaints filed with DOT against U.S. airlines steadily declined from 1987 through 1990; and (8) DOT uses its complaint database to identify and investigate patterns of unfair or deceptive airline practices, although during 1988 through 1990, it has not identified any major passenger rights issues warranting enforcement action.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The updated "Fly Rights" brochure had been completed and was to be distributed in October 1994.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should, as part of the effort to better inform passengers of the extent of and limitations to their rights, update the DOT consumer information booklet, and explore options, such as airport distribution, for a wider distribution of the booklet.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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