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CR urges Secretary Buttigieg to hold airlines accountable for record flight cancellations and delays

CR submits petitions signed by nearly 30,000 consumers calling for stronger airline industry oversight and a Passenger Bill of Rights 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Consumer Reports called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a letter today to take more aggressive action to ensure airline passengers are treated fairly amid a record number of flight cancellations and delays. CR submitted a petition to the Department of Transportation signed by nearly 30,000 people urging Buttigieg to push for clear and enforceable passenger rights in such cases and to hold airlines accountable when they fail to minimize flight disruptions.

“After two years of nonstop travel chaos, it’s time for Secretary Buttigieg to bring order, fairness, and accountability to the airline industry,” said William J. McGee, Aviation Adviser for Consumer Reports. “Secretary Buttigieg should investigate and hold airlines accountable when they fail to minimize flight cancellations and withhold refunds to passengers who were legally entitled to them. We need new rules and stronger oversight by the Department of Transportation that require airlines to accommodate and compensate passengers fairly during flight delays and cancellations.”

According to the Department of Transportation, 111,018 flights were canceled during 2021. Flight disruptions have continued this year and are expected to get even worse with the coming summer travel season. Millions of impacted passengers have faced uncertainty over rebookings, refunds, and accommodations. While the airlines have pointed to bad weather in many cases, staff shortages caused by industry furloughs, encouraged early retirements, and outsourcing have compounded these problems.

CR’s letter to Secretary Buttigieg points out that passengers affected by flight cancellations are largely at the mercy of their airline’s Contracts of Carriage. These lengthy and dense contracts don’t always provide clear answers to critical questions about compensation and accommodations and vary widely from carrier to carrier. By contrast, the European Union has provided and enforced a set of uniform, easy to understand rules for travelers and Canada has a similar passenger bill of rights.

Consumer Reports is calling for one set of clear, consistent rules uniformly applied to all airlines operating in the U.S. so passengers can understand and assert their rights when faced with lengthy flight delays, canceled flights, involuntary bumping, or mishandled baggage.

CR’s petition also calls for the DOT to adopt a new rule that would allow passengers to cancel flights and get a full refund during “force majeure” events such as a global pandemic. Many consumers who canceled flights due to Covid health concerns and government lockdowns have been frustrated that the airlines offered vouchers for future travel instead of providing refunds.

Finally, Consumer Reports renewed its call for Secretary Buttigieg to prohibit airlines from charging families extra fees for sitting with young children on flights. In 2016, Congress passed legislation authorizing the DOT to end such fees for children under 13, yet the practice continues. A CR Freedom of Information Act request of passenger complaints found that children as young as one were assigned seats apart from their families, which raises serious concerns over COVID-19 health protocols, emergency evacuations, and inflight sexual assaults.

CR Expert: William J. McGee

Media Contact: Michael McCauley, michael.mccauley@consumer.org, 415-902-9537