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
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
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.