Fast Facts

Remember when a passenger was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight? Recent customer service issues like this have prompted Congress to question if the Department of Transportation is doing enough to protect passengers.

We summarized airline consumer protections and trends in DOT service data (like on-time flights) and passenger complaints. We found that while service generally improved in recent years, complaints increased.

We also found DOT could improve its airline oversight and passenger education efforts. We made 6 recommendations, including that DOT capture feedback from passengers directly to inform its education efforts.

Screenshot of Part of DOT’s Airline Consumer Protection Website

This is an illustration of a busy airport terminal and it says "Aviation Consumer Protection: Know Your Rights Before you Fly."

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Transportation's (DOT) data offered mixed information on whether airlines' service improved from 2008 through 2017. While DOT's operational data on rates of late flights, denied boardings, and mishandled baggage generally suggested improvement, the rate of passenger complaints received by DOT increased about 10 percent—from about 1.1 complaints per 100,000 passengers to 1.2 complaints per 100,000 passengers.

DOT conducts five key activities to ensure airlines' compliance with consumer protection requirements (see table). However, GAO found that DOT lacked performance measures to help it evaluate some of these activities and that it could improve its procedures (i.e., guidance documents and training materials), that analysts use to code passenger complaints.

  • Performance measures: DOT has established objectives for each of its five key compliance activities that state what it seeks to achieve; however, DOT lacks performance measures for three objectives. For example, DOT lacks a performance measure for conducting inspections of airlines' compliance with consumer protection requirements at airlines' headquarters and at airports. As a result, DOT is missing opportunities to capture critical information about airlines' compliance with consumer protection requirements.
  • Procedures: DOT has procedures to help analysts code passenger complaints and identify potential consumer protection violations. GAO found that DOT's guidance for coding passenger complaints did not consistently include definitions or examples that illustrate appropriate use or help analysts select among the various complaint categories. Additional procedures would help DOT ensure that complaints are consistently coded and that potential violations are properly identified.

Department of Transportation's (DOT) 2017 Key Compliance Activities

Providing compliance assistance to airlines

DOT staff issued guidance and consulted with airlines to promote an understanding of consumer protection requirements.

Processing passenger complaints

Staff received and responded to more than 18,000 passenger complaints and elevated potential consumer protection violations.

Inspecting airlines

Staff conducted inspections in 2017 of U.S. airlines' compliance with certain consumer protection requirements at 18 airports.

Investigating potential violations

Staff initiated 287 investigations of potential consumer protection violations in 2017.

Taking enforcement action

DOT issued 58 warning letters and 13 consent orders for consumer protection violations found in investigations it started in 2017.

Source: GAO analysis of DOT documents and data extracted in August 2018. | GAO-19-76

GAO found that while DOT has taken steps to educate passengers on their rights, its efforts did not fully align with four of nine key practices GAO previously identified for conducting consumer education. For example, while DOT has defined the goals and objectives of its outreach efforts, it has not used budget information to prioritize efforts or established performance measures to assess the results. DOT has also not solicited input directly from passengers to understand what they know about their rights. Taking such actions would provide DOT with greater assurance that its efforts are meeting passengers' needs.

Why GAO Did This Study

Airlines recently came under scrutiny for their treatment of passengers—including a high-profile incident in which a passenger was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight. However, airlines maintain that service has improved, citing better on-time performance and lower airfares. DOT has the authority to issue and enforce certain consumer protection requirements. DOT also educates passengers about their rights.

GAO was asked to examine airline consumer protection issues. This report examines, among other issues, (1) trends in DOT's data on airline service; (2) the effectiveness of DOT's compliance efforts; and (3) the extent to which DOT's passenger education efforts align with key practices for consumer outreach. GAO reviewed DOT data on airline service and analyzed passenger complaint data for the 12 largest domestic airlines from 2008 through 2017; reviewed relevant documents and data on DOT's compliance program; assessed DOT's educational efforts against key practices for successful consumer outreach; and interviewed DOT officials. GAO interviewed or obtained written information from 11 of the 12 airlines.

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Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations, including that DOT: develop performance measures for compliance activities, improve its procedures for coding airline passengers' complaints, and improve how passenger education aligns with GAO's key practices. DOT concurred with our recommendations and provided technical comments, which we incorporated as appropriate.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation 1. The Office of the Secretary should assess its procedures and training materials for coding airline passengers' complaints, as appropriate, to help ensure that passengers' complaints are consistently coded and that potential consumer protection violations are properly identified. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
The Department of Transportation (DOT) has the authority to issue and enforce certain airline consumer protection requirements. DOT conducts five key activities to ensure airlines' compliance with these requirements, including reviewing passenger complaints it receives and identifying potential violations. DOT uses a combination of guidance documents and on-the-job training to help analyst's code passenger complaints and properly identify potential violations of consumer protection requirements. For example, analysts use a coding sheet that helps them assign one of 15 high-level complaint category codes (e.g., "advertising" or "discrimination") to each complaint, as well as more specific lower-level complaint codes and codes indicating a potential violation of consumer protection requirements as necessary. However, in 2018, GAO reported that DOT's guidance for coding passenger complaints did not consistently include definitions and examples that illustrate appropriate use or help analysts select among the various complaint categories. For example, while DOT has a coding sheet that helps analysts determine how to code complaints and identify potential violations, 9 of the 15 complaint categories do not include definitions or examples that would illustrate appropriate use of a complaint code, a gap that could result in inconsistent coding. Moreover, DOT neither has established formal training materials to ensure all new analysts get the same information nor has provided formal training materials to ensure that senior analysts are conveying the same information during on-the-job training. DOT officials stated that the combination of the existing guidance, procedures, and hands-on training provides adequate assurance that analysts share a common understanding of the complaint categories resulting in complaints being consistently coded. Nevertheless, DOT lacked the additional procedures that would help ensure that analysts consistently code complaints and that potential consumer protection violations are properly identified. Therefore, GAO recommended that DOT assess its procedures and training materials for coding airline passengers' complaints, as appropriate, to help ensure that passengers' complaints are consistently coded and that potential consumer protection violations are properly identified. In 2020, GAO confirmed that DOT had assessed its procedures and developed a new training manual to help analysts code complaints and identify potential passenger protection violations. The training manual includes sections on processing and coding complaints, analyzing cases in regulatory and statutory areas, and running reports. For example, to help improve consistency, the manual includes detailed instructions for coding complaints and identifying potential violations for each of the 15 high-level complaint categories, as well as illustrative examples of what codes should be applied in various situations. The manual also includes an appendix that incorporates additional guidance documents issued by DOT. As a result of these efforts, DOT is in a better position to ensure that analysts consistently code passenger complaints and identify potential consumer protection violations.
Department of Transportation 2. The Office of the Secretary should assess the feasibility and cost of updating its airline case management system to address data and reporting limitations, and to undertake those updates that are cost effective and feasible. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
The Department of Transportation (DOT) has the authority to issue and enforce certain airline consumer protection requirements. DOT conducts five key activities to help airlines understand and comply with consumer protection requirements, including conducting investigations of airlines that may have violated these requirements. DOT attorneys can initiate an investigation of a potential consumer protection violation based on findings from trends in passenger complaints, compliance inspections, or monitoring of airline websites, among other things. Attorneys document investigations in DOT's airline case management system, which allows them to create, update, and close case records; link documents to case records; and create and monitor enforcement actions associated with investigations. However, in 2018, GAO found that DOT's case management system lacked functionality that would allow DOT officials to more efficiently use data from the system to inform other key compliance activities, such as making enforcement decisions. Specifically, GAO identified the following limitations: (1) key data fields were optional, (2) data entries were limited, and (3) the system had limited reporting capabilities. According to DOT officials, the case management system's capabilities were limited largely because the database was only designed as a mechanism for attorneys to manage ongoing investigations. The officials were increasingly using data from the case management system to inform other enforcement activities. In addition, DOT used data from the case management system to analyze the results of investigations and inspections. However, because of limited reporting capabilities, attorneys had to manually create summary documents from the case management system's data, work that could be time consuming and subject to manual errors, and that does not address the issue that some data cannot be entered into various data fields in the first place. Recognizing limitations with the case management system, DOT began working with a contractor to update the case management system's functionality. While DOT's planned updates may have helped DOT officials better examine trends in enforcement actions, the planned updates did not fully address the issues GAO identified. Therefore, GAO recommended that DOT assess the feasibility and cost of updating its airline case management system to address data and reporting limitations, and to undertake those updates that are cost effective and feasible. In 2020, GAO confirmed that DOT had made updates to its case management system to address data and reporting limitations. Specifically, DOT contracted with its information technology service provider to make updates and improvements to its case management system, which were completed by December 2020. Among other updates, the case management system now allows attorneys to identify multiple consumer protection violations for each investigation; key data fields-such as the outcome of the case and regulated area-are now required; and the system can run additional reports, such as by subject matter or enforcement action taken. As a result of these efforts, DOT is in a better position to track its airline investigations and use information from its case management system to inform other enforcement actions.
Department of Transportation 3. The Office of the Secretary should establish performance measures for each of its objectives for its five key airline-compliance activities. (Recommendation 3)
Open
As of December 2020, DOT noted that it has taken steps to establish performance measures for each of its five key airline-compliance activities. We will continue to review and monitor DOT's efforts to document and report on these performance measures.
Department of Transportation 4. The Office of the Secretary should capture feedback directly from airline passengers or identify other mechanisms to capture passengers' perspectives to inform DOT's education efforts. (Recommendation 4)
Open
As of December 2020, DOT noted that it plans to collect information from users that access the DOT website in an effort to improve the effectiveness of its public education efforts. We will continue to review and monitor DOT's efforts to capture passenger perspectives to inform DOT's education efforts.
Department of Transportation 5. The Office of the Secretary should identify available short- and long-term budgetary resources for DOT's airline-passenger education efforts. (Recommendation 5)
Closed - Implemented
The Department of Transportation (DOT) has the authority to issue and enforce certain airline consumer protection requirements through a number of activities. DOT also conducts activities aimed at educating passengers about their rights and the services provided by airlines. In 2018, GAO reported that DOT had taken steps to educate airline passengers about their rights, primarily through its revamped aviation consumer protection website and other educational resources. However, DOT's actions did not fully align with four of the nine key practices for conducting consumer outreach education that GAO identified in prior work. Specifically, DOT's actions did not align with the key practice to "identify short- and long- term resources for education efforts." According to DOT officials, DOT had not identified budgetary resources because, while important, DOT's educational efforts are secondary to the office's other efforts. The officials also noted that it had been difficult for the agency to develop a budget and identify resources when the agency has been operating under a continuing resolution for some part of the fiscal year for the last decade. Nevertheless, GAO reported that without identifying short- and long-term budgetary resources and planning activities accordingly, DOT was missing an opportunity to plan educational efforts or prioritize needs based on available resources. Therefore, GAO recommended that DOT identify available short- and long-term budgetary resources for its airline-passenger education efforts. In 2019, GAO confirmed that DOT had taken steps to identify both short and long-term budgetary resources. Specifically, DOT has signed various contracts, ranging from one to five years, allocating budgetary resources toward its consumer protection efforts. Among other things, these contracts fund contractor support for aviation consumer protection advisory meetings; operate and maintain the consumer protection website; and assess the security of the website. These contracts demonstrate DOT's ability to identify and secure funding for shorter-term efforts-such as those encompassing one fiscal year-as well as some longer-term efforts requiring funding for multiple fiscal years. As a result of these efforts, DOT is in a better position to plan educational efforts and align them available resources.
Department of Transportation 6. The Office of the Secretary should develop performance measures for DOT's efforts to educate airline passengers. (Recommendation 6)
Open
As of December 2020, DOT noted that it has taken steps to establish a performance measure for its efforts to educate airline passengers. We will continue to review and monitor DOT's efforts to document and report on this performance measure.

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