When Airlines Stop Flying

DOT mandate for stranded travelers is put to the test

By: Jerry Chandler

The Department of Transportation’s new post-Sept. 11 rule protecting consumers in the event of airline bankruptcy received its first test recently when low-fare Vanguard Airlines shut down. In some instances, things were tough for stranded customers waiting to hitch a ride with someone else.

“We got some complaints,” said DOT spokesman Bill Mosley. As of Aug. 8, the DOT had tallied 14 official complaints against a half dozen carriers relating to problems encountered when Vanguard ticket-holders tried to switch to alternate airlines.

Delta recorded the most gripes five. Two each were levied against US Airways, Frontier, United and Southwest. America West received one complaint. Depending on the carrier, complaints ranged from not being able to get a seat to being charged too much to obtain that seat.

Section 145 of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, signed into law on Nov. 19, 2001, mandates that airlines provide service on routes they operate “to the extent practicable” to passengers who hold tickets for those routes on carriers that have ceased service.

Mosley said it’s the phrase “to the extent practicable” that’s caused all the confusion. He said airlines told the DOT the phrase “was not exactly explicit in terms of what they were obligated to do.”

Now, it is: If an airline flies a route via nonstop or connecting service that was served by the bankrupt carrier, that airline must provide space for a displaced passenger on a standby basis. There’s no requirement that the operating carrier offer a confirmed seat.

Airlines providing those standby seats can only recoup their own costs when charging a displaced passenger, and that fee cannot exceed $25 one-way.

The new rule only applies to airlines that have “completely ceased service altogether,” Mosley said. That means at least for now that it doesn’t apply to US Airways.

How is the mandate working? It’s too early to tell, according to Mosley: “[The airlines] are just starting to implement it.”

‘Better Than Nothing’

Before the Nov. 19, 2001 law, airline passengers were left, literally, to their own devices in the wake of an airline shutdown, twisting in the wind, waiting to benefit from the kindness of strangers in this case, any carrier that deigned to offer them seats.

From that standpoint, the new rule is better “better than nothing,” said Jeffrey Miller, a Baltimore-based transportation attorney. Still, he admonished travel agents and consumers alike to be alert about which airlines they book.

“If you booked a Vanguard flight with a rock-bottom price, you should have been aware that they didn’t interline with anybody; that they didn’t participate in Rule 240 a consumer rule that says they can sign your ticket over to another carrier. It may sound crude,” Miller said, but consumers and agents left floundering after Vanguard’s demise “sort of got what they paid for.”

Miller said the DOT’s new rule and clarification may get clients the right to standby seats, but it doesn’t mean standby seats will be available, especially in this era of diminished competition and schedule reductions.

“I harken back to the days of Eastern Airlines’ bankruptcy,” Miller said. “Back then, agents were telling customers they’d be OK if they booked using a credit card.”

Good enough, as far as it went. The problem is, the shutdown occurred shortly before Easter.

“People got their money back,” Miller said, “but they never got to Florida.” n