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Secretary Buttigieg Launches Bipartisan Partnership with State Attorneys General to Protect Airline Passengers

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

 New partnership with 18 state attorneys general creates fast-track system to prioritize misconduct cases referred to DOT by state attorneys general 

Secretary Buttigieg made the announcement at the Denver International Airport alongside Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser 

DENVER – Today, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced the launch of the bipartisan Airline Passenger Protection Partnership with 18 state attorneys general to investigate airlines and ticket agents and hold them accountable when they violate aviation consumer protection laws. The partnership significantly expands the Department’s oversight capacity by establishing a new fast-track system prioritizing misconduct cases from state attorneys general who uncover unfair or deceptive airline practices. Through the partnership, DOT will provide state attorneys general with access to the federal complaint database and help ensure that airlines cooperate with state investigations. 

“We take our mission to protect consumers seriously, and today's launch of the Airline Passenger Protection Partnership is an important milestone in that effort,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “By partnering with a bipartisan group of state attorneys general, the U.S. Department of Transportation has expanded our ability to hold airlines and ticket agents accountable and protect passengers from unfair or deceptive practices.” 

“Consumers deserve to be treated fairly, know what they’re getting, and get everything they pay for when they fly,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. “This agreement and partnership with the DOT will allow my office to directly serve Colorado consumers when they file complaints about unfair or deceptive airline business practices and creates a process to ensure DOT prioritizes complaints we refer. I want to thank Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his staff for listening to our requests for more coordination between the states and the federal government on this issue. By working together, we will be improving travel for passengers and holding accountable airlines or ticket agents who harm consumers.” 

The partnership – memorialized in signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) – will ensure that state attorneys general and the DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (OACP) are closely collaborating on complaints involving unfair or deceptive practices by airlines. Federal law places responsibility for addressing airline consumer protection matters with DOT. While state attorneys general receive consumer complaints regarding airline practices, airlines are not legally required to respond to state AG inquiries. The MOU incentivizes airlines to be responsive to state attorneys general and enables the use of federal and state resources and expertise to protect the rights of the flying public.  

Through this partnership, DOT and state attorneys general will work together to: 

  • Investigate airline complaints for unfair or deceptive practices: Under the MOU, state attorneys general will investigate the airline complaints they receive to make preliminary determinations as to whether airlines are potentially violating federal aviation consumer protection requirements. 
  • Ensure airlines cooperate with state investigations: The MOU creates a formal mechanism for state attorneys general to report airlines to DOT for failure to respond to requests for information as part of a state investigation into a complaint.   
  • Create a fast-track action system to prioritize misconduct case referrals: When a state attorney general makes a preliminary determination that an airline has violated the law, the MOU establishes a fast-track process for referring the matter to the DOT for priority review and, in appropriate instances, enforcement action. 
  • Share access to consumer complaint database: As part of the MOU, DOT will provide state attorneys general with access to its new, modernized consumer complaint system to support DOT’s enforcement efforts surrounding referrals from the state attorneys general.  

The new partnership will greatly improve DOT’s capacity to protect airline passengers. While DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection has increased the number of attorneys and law clerks it has on staff and delivered historic wins for airline passengers recently, the office’s total headcount is only slightly over 40 people. By closely cooperating with state attorneys general across the country, the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection will be able to better fulfill its expansive mandate given its limited resources. 

Secretary Buttigieg made the announcement at the Denver International Airport alongside Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who led the effort to rally state attorneys general to join the initiative. Secretary Buttigieg signed MOUs with the Attorneys General of California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New York, New Hampshire, North Carolina, the Northern Mariana Islands, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, the United States Virgin Islands, and Wisconsin. In addition to the 18 attorneys general who have signed MOUs with the Department, another 7 attorneys general – Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington – have expressed an interest in doing so. DOT encourages other state attorneys general to sign onto the initiative with the Department. 

To view an example of one of the signed MOUs, click here

DOT’s Historic Record of Consumer Protection Under the Biden-Harris Administration.

Under Secretary Buttigieg and the Biden-Harris Administration, DOT has advanced the largest expansion of airline passenger rights, issued the biggest fines against airlines for failing consumers, and returned more money to passengers in refunds and reimbursements than ever before in the history of the DOT. 

  • Due to Secretary Buttigieg’s pressure and DOT’s dashboard, all 10 major U.S. airlines now guarantee free rebooking and meals, and nine guarantee hotel accommodations when an airline issue causes a significant delay or cancellation. These are new commitments the airlines added to their Customer Service Plans, which DOT has the legal authority to ensure airlines adhere to. 
  • Under Secretary Buttigieg, DOT has issued over $164 million in penalties against airlines for consumer protection violations. 
    • Between 1996 and 2020, DOT collectively issued less than $71 million in penalties against airlines for consumer protection violations. 
  • Under Secretary Buttigieg, DOT has helped return over $3 billion in refunds and reimbursements owed to airline passengers – including over $600 million to passengers affected by Southwest Airlines holiday meltdown in 2022. 

DOT has worked to significantly expand consumer rights for airline passengers and is currently pursuing rulemakings that would:  

  • Propose to ban family seating junk fees and guarantee that parents can sit with their children for no extra charge when they fly. Before President Biden and Secretary Buttigieg pressed airlines last year, no airline committed to guaranteeing fee-free family seating. Now, four airlines guarantee fee-free family seating, as the Department is working on its family seating junk fee ban proposal. Secretary Buttigieg also submitted to Congress a legislative proposal to require that airlines provide fee-free family seating
  • Ensure fee transparency so that consumers know the cost of flying with a checked or carry-on bag and for changing or canceling a flight before they buy a ticket. The rule was proposed to help consumers make informed decisions, save money, and avoid surprises at checkout. 
  • Propose to make passenger compensation and amenities mandatory so that travelers are taken care of when airlines cause flight delays or cancellations.  
  • Ensure that airlines promptly provide a refund when they cancel or significantly change a flight without rebooking the passenger.   
  • Guarantee refunds for passengers for significantly delayed bags and for services they paid for that are not actually provided, such as broken Wi-Fi. 

DOT also recently issued a rulemaking to expand the rights for passengers who use wheelchairs and ensure that they can travel safely and with dignity. The comment period on this rulemaking closes on May 13, 2024. 

Under Secretary Buttigieg, DOT is also undertaking its first ever industry-wide review of airline privacy practices and its first review of airline loyalty programs.  

Travelers can learn more about their protections when they fly at Consumers may file an airline complaint with the Department here