United States General Accounting Office Resources, Community, and Washington, DC 20548 Economic Development Division B-283477 September lo,1999 The Honorable Ron Wyden United States Senate Subject: Aviation: Comnarison of Airline “Customer Service Commitment” With Contracts of Carriage and Federal Law Dear Senator Wyden: Airlines transport their passengers in accordance with various terms and conditions as well as federal statutes and regulations. These terms and conditions are referred to as conditions of contracts or more commonly as contracts of carriage. A contract of carriage is the agreement between the passenger and the airline that encompasses all contractual rights, liabilities, and duties of the two parties. For example, contracts of carriage include such provisions as airline liability limits for lost baggage and passenger entitlements when flights are delayed or canceled. Any term or condition of this contract is legally binding on the airline and the passenger and may be enforced in state court.* Federal regulations’ require that airlines retain a copy of their contracts of carriage at each of their ticket offices for review by passengers requesting to do SO.~ In addition to being able to sue an airline for breach of contract, a passenger could file a complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT) alleging that an airline has violated a federal statute or regulation. For example, a passenger could claim that an airline engaged in an unfair or deceptive practice. As a result of such a complaint, DOT could bring an enforcement action against the airline. In June 1999, the Air Transport Association4 (ATA), responding to Congress’s interest in ensuring that airlines make every effort to provide passengers with the best service available, announced its “Customer Service Commitment.” The Commitment, developed in consultation with congressional leaders and DOT, consisted of several general measures designed to improve customer service. According to ATA officials, each of its member airlines will develop detailed customer service plans on the basis of the ATA proposal by September 15,1999, and implement them by December l&1999. ‘Americai~ Airlines v. Wolens, 513 U.S. 219 (1995). ‘14 C.F.R. 8 253.4. ‘The full text of contracts of carriage for the airlines we reviewed varied from 25 to 45 pages and can be obtained from an airline upon written request to the airline’s headquarters. ‘The Association is a trade organization representing the principal U.S. airlines. &L? 736AO/RCED-99-281R Customer Service Plans B-283477 You requested that we compare the airlines’ existing contracts of carriage with ATA’s Customer Service Commitment. We performed this comparison for the 10 major U.S. passenger airlines. We also compared the airlines’ contracts of carriage and the Customer Service Commitment with the federal statutes and regulations to determine what provisions, if any, are required by statutes or regulations. Summary of Comparisons ATA’s Customer Service Commitment extends the airlines’ commitment beyond the current contracts of carriage by either adding new provisions or augmenting existing terms. The Customer Service Commitment includes new provisions concerning reservations; offering the lowest fare available over the telephone, refunds, and on-time-baggage delivery; meeting customers’needs during on-aircraft extended delays; and handling customer complaints. For example, airlines are to allow passengers to hold a reservation for 24 hours or cancel a reservation within 24 hours without penalty. Several other measures in the Customer Service Commitment (notifying customers about known delays, cancellations, and diversions; petitioning DOT for an increase in the minimum baggageliability limits; disclosing information on various airline policies; and ensuring customer service for code-share partners?) augment terms provided for in the contracts of carriage. The remaining measures (accommodating special needs passengers and fairly handling “bumped” passengers) are currently included in the contracts of carriage. Enclosure I summari zes our comparison of the measures contained in the Customer Service Commitment. The officials at the 10 major airlines that we contacted6 indicated that they were considering revisions to their contracts of carriage to reflect at least some aspects of their customer service plans. However, these officials said that the decision about what specific changes to make would involve a side-by-side comparison of their current contracts of carriage and their final customer service plan. Because the plans are still being developed, the officials could not say to what extent the contracts would be revised. One airline official, however, did say that the minimum baggageliability limit would certainly be changed to reflect the anticipated regulatory change in the baggage liability minimum.’ Most of these officials believed that any revisions to their airline’s contracts of carriage would be made by the end of 1999. Federal statutes and regulations have a significant impact on a number of the measures in the Customer Service Commitment, such as the following: providing baggage liability, providing prompt ticket refunds, accommodating special needs passengers, handling bumped passengers,notifying customers about aircraft changes and aircraft type and configuration, and ensuring customer service from an airline’s code-sharing partners. Several of these measures (fairly handling bumped passengers, ensuring customer service from an airline’s code-sharing partners, providing prompt ticket refunds, accommodating special needs SCodesh&ng allows an airline to sell seats on another airline’s airplanes, as if they were its own. This enables the airlines that have partnered to expand their route networks without adding any airplanes. ‘The 10 major passengersirlines, each with more than a billion dollars in annual revenues, are Alaska, American, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, Trans World, United, and U.S. Airways. ‘DOT has proposed that the minimum baggageliability be increased from $1,250to $2,500,64 Fed. Reg. 34592,June 28,1999. 2 GAO/RCED-99-281R Customer Service Plans B-283477 passengers, and providing passengers with information on airline policies and aircraft configuration) reflect what is in the statutes and regulations. In addition, the Customer Service Commitment seeks to change the current minimum baggageliability limit regulation. In June of 1999, DOT issued a supplemental notice proposing to raise the minimum baggage liability limit from $1,250 to $2,500. DOT has yet to finalize this proposed rule. One of the ATA measures calls for airline officials to petition DOT to increase its minimum baggage liability limit. DOT officials said that under federal law, DOT could bring an enforcement action against an airline that engages in what it considers an unfair and deceptive trade practice,* As examples of unfair and deceptive trade practices, DOT cited an airline’s~failure to (1) follow through on promises that would be made in an airline’s customer service plan; (2) provide the lowest fare available over the telephone to a passenger who requests it; (3) adhere to promised flight schedules that have been changed as a result of flight cancellations due to economic considerations; and (4) provide passengers with cash refunds within 20 days of receiving complete claim information. Scope and Methodology We interviewed ATA officials to better understand the context in which the Customer Service Commitment was developed. We also interviewed officials from the 10 major passenger airlines to determine if they intended to incorporate their customer service plans into their contracts of carriage. We did not determine the extent to which existing contracts of carnage reflect actual airline practices. In addition, we interviewed DOT officials to determine the Department’s interpretation of the pertinent federal statutes and regulations. However, we did not review all federal involvement in airline operations such as DOT enforcement decisions and federal law outside of DOT’s and the Federal Aviation Administration’s statutes and regulations. We discussed the information in this report with DOT and ATA officials. They provided technical corrections, which we incorporated into the report as appropriate. Our work was performed from July through August 1999 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. We are sending copies of this report to the Honorable Rodney E. Slater, Secretary of Transportation; appropriate congressional committees; and other interested parties. We will make copies available to others upon request. ‘49 U.S.C. !j 41712. 3 GAO/RCED-99-281R Customer Service Plans B-283477 If you have any further questions, please contact me at (202) 512-3650. Major contributors to this report were David Hooper, Paul Lacey, Richard Scott, and Robert White. Sincerely yours, Gerald L. Dillingham Associate Director, Transportation Issues 4 GAO/RCED-99-281R Customer Service Plans Enclosure I ComDarison of Customer Service Commitment With Contracts of Carriage and Federal Law Each airline has its own contract of carriage, which sets out the terms and conditions of the agreement between the passenger and the airline when a passeng& purchases an airline ticket. Because of the similarity among the contracts, we have summarized them and indicate major differences in the notes to table 1.1. Table 1.1: Comparison of Customer Service Commitment With Airlines’ DomesticContracts of Carriage and Pertinent Federal Statutes and Regulations Customer Service Airlines’ domestic contracts Pertinent federal statutes and Commitment of carriage regulations The lowest fare that a Service not addressed.” According to DOT officials, it would customer is entitled to will be be an unfair and deceptive trade offered through the telephone practice under 49 U.S.C. 9 41712 reservations system. for an airline to provide other than the lowest fare available by telephone to a customer if requested to do so. Customers will be informed Service not addressed. According to DOT officials, it would about delays, cancellations, be an unfair and deceptive trade and diversions in a timely practice under 49 U.S.C. Q 41712 manner. for an airline to inform passengers that cancellations were due to weather, mechanical reasons, etc., when, in fact. the cancellations were bue to &onomic reasons. Clear and concise policies The airlines will provide Service not addressed. regarding accommodations amenities (including overnight for passengers delayed accommodations) for overnight will be established passengers whose flight has and made available to them. been diverted to an unscheduled point. Hotel accommodations are provided if the delay exceeds 4 hours during the period of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.b Even/ reasonable effort will be Service not addressed. Service not addressed. made to return checked baggage to passengers within 24 hours and to contact any passenger whose unclaimed shecked luggage contains a name and address or telephone number. Airlines will petition DOT to Contracts reflect federal Federal regulations currently set increase the current minimum regulation’s minimum liability the minimum amounts for the baggage liability.’ limit of $1,250.’ airlines liability limits at $1,250 for sach passenger.” The airlines are required to provide passengers inrithwritten notice (included on or with a ticket) of such monetary limits on baggage liabili . Prirlineswill issue credit card Service not addressed.’ Under federal- regulations: a refunds within 7 days and zreditor (in this case the airline) has :ash refunds within 20 days. 7 business days to provide a refund ior tickets purchased with a credit :ard. In addition, DOT has taken 5 GAO/RCED-99-281R Customer Service Plans Enclosure I htomer Service Mines’ domestic contracts ‘ettinent federal statutes and :ommitment ,f carriage egulations nforcement actions against airlinesfor failure to provide efunds for tickets purchased with lash or check within 20 business lays. DOT officials consider any leriod longer than 20 days to be an rnfair and deceptive trade practice inder 49 U.S.C. § 41712. Mines will disclose policies >ontracts specify the age that service not addressed. md procedures for m unaccompanied child will be Lccommodating acceptedfor travel and address maccompanied minors. he requirements for such travel )n both nonstop and connecting lights. Mines will disclose policies Contracts reflect federal ‘ederal regulations requireairlines xrd procedures for ,egulations requiring airlines to o provide specific services and accommodating disabled xovide specific services and acilities to accommodate lersons. acilities for passengers with lassengers with disabilities both in disabilities. Contracts include he airport and on the aircraft. ormer legal liability limit for iirlines are required to make zssistive devices such as wailable, on request, information Nheelchairs. m facilities and services. Currently, airlines may not limit liability for lssistive devices.h Wines will make Service not addressed. service not addressed. *easonable efforts to xovide food, water, -estroom facilities, and access to medical :reatment for passengers aboard an aircraft that is grounded for an extended period of time without access to the terminal consistent with passenger and employee safety and security concerns. Each airline will prepare contingency plans to address such circumstances. Airlines will establish and Under federal regulations, all Federal regulations specify policies disclose to customers the airlines have established for handling passengers who are policies and procedures, policies (and incorporated such denied boarding because of including applicable policies into the contracts of overbooking by the airline. Each requirements such as check- carnage) for managing their airline must in deadlines, for managing inability to board all passengers . request volunteers who will their inability to board all with confirmed reservations. agree not to board an airplane passengers with confirmed The provisions in each airline’s before using any, other reservations. conditions of contract, with boarding priority; respect to bumped passengers, . establish criteria for are virtually identical and mirror determining which passengers the requirements and shall be denied boarding; procedures found in the . compensate qualified regulations. 6 GAO/RCED-99-281R Customer Service Plans Enclosure I Customer Service Airlines’ domestic contracts Pertinent federal statutes and Commitment of carriage regulations be clearly visible and readable to the traveling public, describing the airline’s deliberate overbooking policy; and . furnish passengers with a written statement explaining the terms, conditions, and limitations of compensation for denied boarding. Each airline will disclose to Service not addressed. Federal regulations require that a the customer any change of change of aircraft on a single flight aircraft on a single flight with number be disclosed directly to the same flight number. passengers.’ Each airline will disclose its Some airlines” specifically Federal regulations require airlines cancellation policies due to prohibit “hidden city” ticketing” in to make copies of the contracts of passengers’failure to use their contracts of carriage. All carriage available at airports and flight segment coupons. airlines prohibit “back-to-back” ticket offices so that passengers ticketing.’ If the passenger fails may view the full text of the to comply with these contracts upon request? fvlany restrictions, the airline has the contracts of carriage include right to cancel or confiscate the airlines’ rules with regard to unused unused portion of the flight segments. in addition, passenger’s ticket.P according to DOT officials, misrepresentations regarding airline policies would be prohibited as unfair and deceotive oractices under 49 U.S.C. 9 4171i. Rules, restrictions, and an Service not addressed. According to DOT officials, annual report on frequent flyer misrepresentations regarding program redemptions. airline policies would be prohibited as unfair and deceotive oractices under 49 U.S.C. § 4171i. Information regarding aircraft Service not addressed. For international fliahts, each tariff configuration, including seat must include the tybe of aircraft size and pitch. and the seating configuration for each class of passenger service, including the number of seats abreast, the seat pitch, and the number of lounge seats.” In addition, according to DOT officials, misrepresentations regarding airline policies would be prohibited as unfair and deceptive practices under 49 U.S.C. 9 41712. Each airline will ensure that Airlines limit their responsibility Service not addressed. domestic code-share partners to transportation over their own make a commitment to lines.’ When an airline issues a provide comparable ticket, checks baggage, or consumer plans. and policies. makes other arrangements for transportation over the lines of another carrier, it will act only as an agent for the other and will not assume responsibility for the acts or omissions of the other carrier. 7 GAO/RCED-99-281R Customer Service Plans Enclosure I r Customer Service Airlines’ domestic contracts Pertinent federal statutes and Commitment of carriage regulations Each airline will Service not addressed. Federal regulations require that a . assign a customer carrier respond to a disability service representative to complaint within 30 days of its handle passenger receipt.” complaints and ensure a response to written According to DOT officials, it would complaints within 60 be an unfair and deceptive practice days; under 49 U.S.C. 9 41712 for an . develop and implement a airline to engage in a practice of customer service plan providing false or deceptive within 6 months: responses to complaints. . publish and make the customer service plans available on the Internet, at airports, at ticket offices, and with travel agents; and . respond fully to Congress’s request for the periodic review of compliance with the Customer Service Commitment. Legend DOT = Department of Transportation “All airlines (except Southwest and U.S. Airways) state that if, after purchasing a ticket, the fare decreases, the passenger will be reimbursed the difference upon request. ‘Neither American Airlines nor Southwest Airlines includes provisions for overnight accommodations for passengers with flights that are diverted to unscheduled points. ’The $1,250 amount in the DOT rule is a minimum limit that sets the floor for an airfine’s liability. The Airline Transportation Association filed a petition with DOT on August 27, 1999, supporting the Department in raising the current domestic baggage minimum liability limit. Docket OST-1996-1340-38. “The current liability limitation is found in 14 C.F.R. Part 254; however, DOT has proposed increasing the airlines’liability limit from $1,250 to $2,500. (See 64 Fed. Reg. 34592 (1999)) ‘The airlines specify the circumstances in which refunds are permitted but do not address the promptness with which the passenger will receive the refund. ‘12C.F.R.,Part226.12(c)and 14C.F.R. Part374. h DOT recently lifted the $2,500 liability limit for mobility aids making liability unlimited (64 Fed. Reg. 41781, Aug. 2, 1999). This regulation became effective Sept. 1, 1999 (14 C.F.R. Q 382.43). ’4 C.F.R. Q 250.2b. The federal regulations require compensation only for those passengers who comply with the terms in the carriers contract of carriage regarding ticketing, reconfirmation, and check-in times. Compensation is also not required if comparable transportation permits the passenger to arrive within 1 hour of the original arrival time. (See 14 C.F.R. § 250.6.) “If the carrier arranges for comparable transportation that arrives within 2 hours of the original arrival time (4 hours on an international flight), the maximum compensation is $200; otherwise, the maximum compensation is $400. (See 14 C.F.R. 5 250.5.) ‘14 C.F.R. Part 258.5(b) and (c). “Delta, Trans World, American, Continental, and U.S. Airways specifically prohibit hidden city ticketing in the contracts of carriage. “Hidden city ticketing occurs when a passenger purchases a ticket with a stopover/connecting flight at a specific destination, intending only to begin or end his travel at this destination and not continue or use the remaining segments of the purchased flight. “Back-to-back.ticketfng occurs when a passenger purchases two roundtrip tickets, intending to use only one segment of each ticket to circumvent minimum stay requirements. ‘In addition to specifically addressing “back-to-back” ticketing, all airlines assert a general right to dishonor any or all portions of the ticket if a passenger fails to occupy space that has been reserved. ‘14 C.F.R. 5 253.5. 8 GAOIRCED-99-281R Customer Service Plans Enclosure I ‘A tariff is a public document that sets forth rates and charges with respect to international services and governing rules and regulations and practices relating to those services. “14 C.F.R. § 221.38. ’Southwest Airlines does not have a provision in its contracts of carriage concerning responsibility/liability for a passenger’s travel with another carrier. Southwest also does not currently code-share with any other airline. ‘14 C.F.R. § 382.65. (348186) GAO/RCED-99-281R Customer Service Plans Ordering Information The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free. Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the following address, accompanied by a check or money order made out to the Superintendent of Documents, when necessary. VISA and Mastercard credit cards are accepted, also. Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address are discounted 25 percent. Orders by mail: U.S. General Accounting Office P.O. Box 37050 Washington, DC 20013 or visit: Room 1100 ‘700 4th St. NW (corner of 4th and G Sts. NW) U.S. General Acconnting Office Washington, DC Orders may also be placed by caBing (202) 512-6000 or by using fax number (202) 512-6061, or TDD (202) 512-2537. Each day, GAO issues a list of newly available reports and testimony. 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Aviation: Comparison of Airline 'Customer Service Commitment' With Contracts of Carriage and Federal Law
Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-09-10.
Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)