Attorney General Tong Fights to Protect Airline Customers(Hartford, CT) -- Attorney General William Tong today joined a multi-state coalition urging Congress to allow attorneys general to enforce state and federal consumer protections for airline travelers. This request comes after attorneys general received thousands of complaints from outraged passengers, claiming airlines have failed in their service responsibilities, causing significant frustrations and unnecessary challenges.
“Since the pandemic, my office has received over 260 complaints directly against airlines. While we have been able to help secure nearly $200,000 in travel-related refunds and relief, in some instances airlines pushed back citing federal preemption. It’s no secret that flying has become more frustrating since the pandemic, with cancelled and delayed flights, lost luggage, and inadequate customer service. This type of consumer mediation is the bread and butter of the work of attorneys general, and we are ready, willing and able to take on this work,” said Attorney General Tong.
“As airline consumer complaints reach all-time highs, I’ll fight for a passenger bill of rights and other protections— including new powers for state attorneys general. All too often delays and cancellations result from airline mismanagement that put profits over passengers. I’m working for new laws to provide stronger penalties and prompt refunds— and tougher enforcement of existing laws. Passengers simply deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and need better protections now,” said U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal.
Federal law currently places the central responsibility for addressing violations of airline consumer protection with the United States Department of Transportation (US DOT), but the agency has not kept up with the escalating issues. Under federal law, state attorneys general have limited authority to hold airline companies accountable for unacceptable behavior towards consumers.
The letter urges Congress to pass legislation that would repeal the federal bar on state attorneys general enforcing the same state and federal consumer protection laws that apply to other industries. It also encourages Congress to consider shifting the authority for federal investigations of airline patron complaints from the US DOT to an agency more primarily focused on consumer protection, such as the U.S. Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission.
Examples of complaints from Connecticut:
One family purchased tickets to travel to Arizona in April 2020 on American Airlines. When the family was forced to cancel their trip due to the pandemic, American Airlines insisted they could issue only a credit, not a refund. With family members at high risk, they did not have any plans to travel again for the near future. After getting nowhere with American Airlines, the family asked the Office of the Attorney General for help. When the Office of the Attorney General reached out, American Airlines responded that the Office “has no jurisdiction in this matter, as state laws affecting airline’s rates, routes, or services are preempted under federal law. The proper and exclusive forum…is the United States Department of Transportation, which has sole jurisdiction over matters relating to the rates, routes, and service of airlines.” Nevertheless, American Airlines granted a full refund.
One woman purchased tickets to travel to Miami in August 2020 on American Airlines in order to connect to a cruise. The cruise was cancelled due to the pandemic. The airline told them they could only offer a credit that would expire by the end of 2021, which would be of no use to her since her cruise had been postponed to 2022. When the Office of the Attorney General sought assistance, they stated they “respectfully request that you close your inquiry into this matter based upon the USDOT’s preemption claim and your lack of jurisdiction.”
A frontline intensive care worker at Yale-New Haven Hospital had purchased a round-trip ticket to Texas on American Airlines prior to the pandemic, and later cancelled the trip due to exposure to COVID-19 through her work. American Airlines refused to refund the ticket, and the woman reached out to the Office of the Attorney General for help. American Airlines refused to communicate with our office citing “state laws affecting airline’s rates, routes, or services are preempted under federal law.”
Joining Attorney General Tong are the attorneys general of Arizona, Colorado, Alaska, California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Northern Mariana Islands, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Read a copy of the letter here.
Assistant Attorney General Joseph Gasser, Legal Investigator Christine Buck, and Deputy Associate Attorney General Mike Wertheimer, head of the Consumer Protection Section assisted the Attorney General in this matter.