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Travel and You

DOT Starts to Listen

January 10, 1988|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

Have you ever thought of complaining to the Department of Transportation about airline mistreatment, but didn't?

Once it might have been a waste of time. The DOT, in the past, didn't seem to want to discipline airlines for violating consumer guidelines.

But times are changing. In 1987 the DOT started listening to passenger and travel agent complaints. As a result, about $656,500 in fines was levied against seven carriers. When you consider that in 1986 the DOT collected $55,000 from two charter operators--for offenses committed two years earlier--you can see that the agency is taking a tougher line.

Violations last year were varied. Many complaints involved improper compensation procedures for passengers denied boarding because of overbooking.

Northwest Airlines, for example, was fined $325,000 for that violation. They were also cited for not making refunds in a timely fashion and for failing to disclose code-sharing arrangements.

The latter case involved people who bought tickets on Northwest, but were not told that a leg of their flight would be on another airline, a partner in Northwest's commuter network. They were forced to fly on smaller aircraft, which some travelers do not like to do.

Shared Code Designations

Rules stipulate that when a major airline allows a commuter to share a code designation, that fact must be disclosed to the passenger.

The DOT also cited Continental on charges of denied boarding violations (overbooking), late refunds and failure to disclose code-sharing flights. It cost the Houston-based line $250,000.

Smaller fines were levied against TWA ($12,000, denied boarding and code-sharing offenses and for "inappropriate fare listing"), Hawaiian ($20,000, denied boarding), Piedmont ($9,500, code sharing) and two other carriers--Minerve ($35,000) and Key Airlines ($5,000)--for charter violations.

TWA's fare-listing offense involved a Tampa-to-Los Angeles round-trip flight displayed in the carrier's computer reservations system for $172. When travel agents tried to book the fare, they found it was not available. However, a fare for $60 more was.

The problem was caused, according to TWA, by a computer snafu complicated by inexperienced reservationists, more than 600 of whom were new in 1987.

Fines of $12,000 to TWA and $9,500 to Piedmont probably didn't cut deep. But they got attention.

Tour Packagers Fined

Airlines were not the only travel companies hit by penalties last year. Two tour packagers were fined for advertising and charter-filing irregularities.

Tourlite of New York paid $66,000 and Boston-based Trans National Tours paid $40,000 in an industry total of more than $750,000.

The DOT is now being forced by an increasing interest in Congress to do its job with a little more "enthusiasm."

The recent order that has made airlines disclose their on-time record and other service-related statistics on a monthly basis was a result of that interest. Many believe that it does not go far enough.

It appears that the DOT got the message. More heavy fines are expected in 1988.

If you have any air-related complaints, write to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Consumer Affairs, Room 10405, 400 Seventh St., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590.

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