The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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Although America’s air carriers have received billions in federal pandemic aid, they have faced few government penalties for their service lapses.
Although America’s air carriers have received billions in federal pandemic aid, they have faced few government penalties for their service lapses. (iStock)

It’s been a rough year for air travelers, at least when it comes to customer service.

Airlines? Not so much.

America’s air carriers have received about $80 billion in pandemic aid from the federal government but have faced almost no government penalties for their service lapses.

As of today, the Transportation Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection has issued just two fines against major airlines. That puts it on track for 2021 to have the lowest number of enforcements in the agency’s history.

So here we are, with 2021 almost done, and a government that seems unwilling to enforce even the most basic of consumer protection rules.

Interestingly, though, it is willing to punish passengers. In August, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed more than $500,000 in fines against misbehaving passengers, pushing the 2021 total to more than $1 million. Ironically, one of the passengers on a JetBlue flight faced a $45,000 fine, which is more than what the airline paid for stranding passengers on the tarmac. (JetBlue was fined $60,000 but only has to pay about half of that under the terms of the consent order.)

How do you address this imbalance? Ideas include rethinking the way airlines are fined for violating customer service rules, passing new regulations and requiring airlines to improve their training.

One of the most compelling ideas is to abandon the traditional enforcement actions against airlines. Instead, consumer advocates have proposed a novel idea to nudge airlines toward taking better care of their customers.

Say an airline quotes a misleading airfare on its site or is slow to issue refunds. What if instead of threatening it with a fine, the government takes away its ability to take off or land at certain airports? Landing slots, which are permission to operate flights at specific times at busy airports, are worth tens — and sometimes hundreds — of millions of dollars. Losing one could have a meaningful effect on an airline’s operation. And the possibility of losing one would provide a powerful incentive to take care of customers.

Local authorities could also confiscate the right to use airport gates as punishment for violating consumer rules. Better still, penalizing airlines in such a way would not require a formal and lengthy enforcement procedure; it could happen quickly and with minimal paperwork.

“Rethinking the way the government enforces consumer regulations could have an almost immediate effect on air travel,” says Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, a Washington consumer advocacy organization.

Aside from government imposition of more effective penalties, what can airlines do to improve the flying experience? They could start by giving air travelers just a few more rights.

“It’s high time the U.S. employs similar legal consumer protection as afforded [European Union] residents,” says veteran airline analyst Addison Schonland. “In this country, we have virtually no consumer travel protection.”

For example, Europe’s consumer protection rules establish standards for compensation and assistance to passengers in cases of denied boarding, flight cancellation or extended delays. No such regulations exist in the United States. Schonland and many other aviation insiders say they should.

Those kinds of consumer protections would require an act of Congress. During the last administration, E.U.-style consumer protections didn’t have a chance. But they may now. Typically, all it takes is a single news event to focus everyone’s attention on the lack of adequate consumer protections — a service meltdown that captures half a news cycle — and American air travelers would be on their way.

There’s also common sense. Offer a humane amount of legroom and personal space in economy class. Jettison the fees you know your customers hate. And treat customers with respect, especially when it comes to their masks. Treat passengers as you would want to be treated. And prepare your employees for the pushback from passengers when you don’t.

“Airlines should train and periodically retrain flight crew members to deal with irate passengers,” says Ady Milman, a professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida.

But passengers fear the industry is headed in the wrong direction. Jacqueline Hampton, founder of the travel planning site Portico, says travelers already dread the return of fees. She says airlines ought to keep them reasonable — “something nominal, in the $10 to $25 range,” she says. Passengers doubt that mask rules will ever get lifted. And they miss the days when airlines welcomed them on board and made them feel special, even in the main cabin.

“Why don’t they do fun things that show their warmth?” she says. “What about a surprise raffle every once in a while, where a random seat gets a credit or free snack or an upgrade to a better seat?”

But experts say the airlines shouldn’t change too much. Take mask rules, which have been extended until Jan. 18. Although many passengers may want the rules rescinded as soon as possible, that would also increase the chances of air travelers getting infected by the coronavirus.

“The government surely could loosen mask restrictions,” says Jeff Galak, associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “But in doing so, they would be failing in their mission to keep customers safe.”

Even if you give passengers everything they want, it’s still going to be a long climb back to the days when passengers looked forward to their flights instead of dreading them. Improved training, better consumer protection rules and new approaches to enforcement aren’t a quick fix for the airline industry’s service problems. They are, at best, a slow one — with no guarantees of success.

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at

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