A General Accounting Office review of airline consumer protection issues yielded no bombshell findings. 

The GAO, however, did recommend that the DOT take more thorough steps to educate consumers about their rights and to set performance metrics for its oversight of airlines. 

Congress directed the GAO to undertake the review last year as it responded to public outrage about a booked passenger being dragged off a United Express flight (operated by Republic Airline) to make room for the crew.   

As part of the review, the GAO analyzed DOT data for the past 10 years on key airline performance metrics, including baggage handling, cancellations, on-time performance and denied boarding due to overbooking. Though the years 2008 to 2013 were uneven, carriers have improved performance in each of those areas since 2014. 

The number of consumer complaints submitted to the DOT, adjusted for the increase in passenger counts, has also gone down since 2015. However, they remain up slightly more than 10% since 2008.

Among other things, the DOT uses complaint data as one source of information in determining which carriers to inspect and investigate. The report shows that in 2017, the DOT opened 287 investigations, its most since 2012. Conversely, the department issued just 13 consent orders in 2017, its fewest over the 10-year period examined while issuing 58 warnings, the most since 2011. 

In its recommendations, the GAO noted that the DOT has established objectives on what it hopes to achieve for each of its five key compliance activities: providing regulatory compliance assistance to airlines; processing passenger complaints; inspecting airlines; investigating potential violations; and taking enforcement action. However, the department has only set measures to assess its performance on processing complaints from passengers and conducting airline investigations. The DOT's performance measure related to passenger complaints, for example, is to acknowledge all of them within 24 hours. 

The GAO recommended that the DOT set performance measures on the other three key compliance activities, as well. 

The GAO also noted that the DOT has taken some important steps to educate airline passengers about their rights, including a November 2017 improvement of its Aviation Consumer Protection website. 

Still the DOT should increase its outreach actions, the GAO said. Better research on how much consumers know about their rights, as well as the establishment of educational outreach performance measures, are among the steps the DOT should take, the GAO said.

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