When DOT fines happen to good airlines

by Charlie Leocha on May 3, 2013

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This is a story about Southwest Airlines, a computer glitch and Department of Transportation (DOT) Enforcement Office actions. Though the situation involves one of the most consumer-friendly airlines, it is a lesson for all about the importance of following the airline customer complaint process.

This story is an instructive tale for other airlines and shows that DOT is following up on enforcement of their customer complaint resolution regulations. The DOT already has one of the best, if not the best, complaint systems in the government. Plus, in the coming months new procedures recommended by the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections will improve DOT’s interaction with the public who file complaints.

Note: For airline passengers, the current regulations for U.S. carriers, 14 CFR 259.7(c), became effective on April 29, 2010. The Department expanded this requirement to foreign carriers through its Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections II final rule, which became effective on August 23, 2011. These recent rules clearly indicate complaint resolution procedures for both domestic and foreign airlines for service to the United States.

The rule states that airlines must acknowledge receipt of written complaints regarding scheduled service within 30 days of receipt of the complaint. Within 60 days of the receipt of the complaint, the carrier must provide a substantive written response to the complaint.

Here is the story about complaints left unanswered by Southwest Airlines.

According to the Consent Order released by DOT, Southwest Airlines failed to respond timely to a large number of disability- and consumer-related complaints for seven months during the period of June 2011 through January 2012. It seems that a computer glitch on their website was routing complaints into a dark hole in the system where they were being ignored.

Problem One: The DOT rule states that airlines must respond within 30 days of receiving a complaint with an acknowledgement of receiving the complaint. Obviously, if Southwest did not know of the complaints because of the computer software malfunction, they did not reply.

Basically, Southwest was unaware that these complaints had been filed. Eventually, the airline discovered the backlog of complaints and in order to answer them, it seems the airline sent out a series of what amounted to form letters to inform customers that they had received their complaints.

Problem Two: In responding to the complaints, DOT found Southwest’s response “provided a summary of Southwest’s policy regarding the disability-related issues raised by the passengers and did not address the specific facts in each passenger’s complaint…” The rules required much more of a specific response rather than a form letter.

Southwest, according to the Consent Order, states that it did not address the specific facts of each complaint or admit or deny alleged violations because the company’s main priority was to respond to each consumer as quickly as possible given the delay that had already occurred.

Southwest went on to refund “the full amount of each affected customer’s ticket regardless of the merits of the complaint.” That’s the hallmark of a company focused on repairing customer trust after a significant problem.

The final solution to this situation was a civil penalty issued by DOT in the amount of $150,000. Of that amount $115,000 is credited for airfares refunded to affected passengers and $35,000 is assessed as an additional fine.

In accepting the fine, Southwest noted that it takes very seriously its obligation to provide timely responses to consumer complaints in full compliance with the Department’s regulations as shown by their actions upon discovering the mis-routing problems with their website. Southwest has taken steps to ensure that similar website routing errors do not recur.

Lesson learned: Even the most customer-friendly airlines face software problems and DOT has sent a message to the airline industry that their commitment to enforcement of consumer complaint rules is serious.

Passengers, when faced with problems while traveling by air, should file a complaint with DOT as well as their airlines. The complaint form on the DOT website makes it easy and ensures that information necessary to reach a conclusion is provided for each complaint.

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  • mjhooper

    So for eight long months SW had no customer complaints?
    This didn’t make someone’s nose itch?
    Was no one in charge of complaint department who might notice this glitch in the system?
    I imagine someone has by now been assigned the job of monitoring complaints.
    I’m glad the DOT rules have some teeth. Can’t make exceptions or else the exceptions will prove (to be) the rule. Not good. Congratulation to DOT.

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