The DoT Takes a Softer Stance on Consumer Protection


Since the US Department of Transportation initially announced its consumer protection rules regarding fare changes nearly 3 years ago there have been plenty of reasons to believe they were not long for the world. But the rules never changed. Actually they still have not changed, at least in terms of what is published. And yet the way they are enforced did change this week in a way which may have a significant impact on consumers going forward.

The impetus for the new enforcement behavior is the recent United Airlines currency conversion debacle, affectionately referred to by some as the “Great Dane” fare because it was priced in Danish Krone. United found the mistake quickly and acted quickly to notify customers that it would not be honored (well under 24 hours for purchases). And then the DoT got involved thanks to “thousands of consumers” filing claims via the DoT process. That process took several days to complete rather than several hours but the final ruling was handed down on Monday.

The short version is that United wins. OK, fine.

The longer version of the story, however, is a bit more nuanced. The DoT chose two main reasons to side with United in this instance:

  • Customers had to change their billing address to Denmark, demonstrating “bad faith”
  • The fare was listed in Danish Krone throughout the process so it was not targeted to US-based consumers

One part of the statement in particular has me a bit concerned:

Consistent with the Office’s treatment of fare advertisements and disclosure of baggage fees, it does not intend to enforce the rule in question (the post-purchase price increase prohibition) when the fare offer is not marketed to consumers in the United States.

This is a tough situation for the DoT because enforcing rules on a random website based in a foreign country would be an unreasonable expectation of reach and scope for the group, even if that site is selling tickets for travel in the USA . But this is a US-based airline running a website hosted in the US and selling travel on planes which are, in many cases, flying to the US. The DoT has suggested that such situations are no longer to be covered by its rules.

Buying fares originating outside the US is not all that uncommon a practice. I’m currently in the middle of three consecutive trips in which each round-trip journey starts and finishes in Europe; New York City (home) is my “destination” each time rather than the origin. One of the three was issued by United and priced in euros, not dollars. Must I forego all DoT protections because of that booking pattern? Did I misrepresent myself or otherwise buy my flights in “bad faith” because I had the tickets issued outside the United States using my NYC-domiciled credit card? I certainly do not think so, though apparently the DoT disagrees.

The letter of the law for 49 U.S.C. 41712 § 399.88(a) does not qualify the requirement that sale must be targeted towards consumers in the United States. And prior enforcement actions did not necessarily require such. Now it seems that they will. This is arguably a softening of the consumer protection regulations, though not entirely an unexpected one. The DoT has hinted previously that it was considering changes to the rules particularly to deal with the “bad faith” customers. This would seem to be the first definitive move in that direction.

The DoT previously had a “bright line” rule which seemingly protected all consumers, at least for travel to/from the USA. That is no longer the case. The protections are quickly eroding through the various “carve outs” the Department is allowing. And, given that “mistakes” were initially explicitly covered by the rules the recent adjustments seem to be a rather significant change of course from the DoT.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

9 Comments

  1. While it bothers me that the DOT is apparently ok ignoring their guidance and treating United differently than other airlines who have been fined in the past, the part where the DOT is telling United not to respond to consumers is even more troubling. If I understand it all correctly, United has cancelled these tickets without notifying customers, customers complained, and the DOT is telling United it doesn’t have to respond to customers, a clear change from past practice. That is a very scary precedent.

    1. UA already (at least in theory) notified customers once. That is its only obligation. If a customer filed a complaint then it is up to the DoT to notify that customer of the outcome of the complaint. In this case the DoT chose a broadcast message rather than individual emails. I’m a bit surprised it cannot do a quick mail merge generic form letter email as well but really only a little bit.

      1. Yep, letting them broadcast message that’s not even a 1/4 size of the ads they display on the website is certainly a nice slap in the face.

  2. Again the the best post on the subject. I tend to agree with not enforcing these tickets, but the DoT has started down a slippery slope and that does make me nervous. And boy I don’t think United could have handled this worse.

    1. I think that UA handled it well, all things considered. It made the decision quickly and, for the most part, informed customers promptly. There have been a few reports of transactions not being reversed properly or emails not received but those are the exception, not the rule.

      1. They really dropped the ball with the first cx emails saying go back to united for booking at updated pricing.
        And at least my money is still tied up.

  3. I don’t quite agree on your objections, but then I am from a different legal system, where principles goes first.

    I do wonder if they are reinstating all tickets sold from Denmark, with a Danish card?

    1. My understanding is that tickets sold to Danes are not being reinstated as the DoT has no authority there. Affected customers would have to pursue the issue locally.

  4. “Bad faith” could hardly be more evident than in this case. I have absolutely nothing against trying for a mistake fare. But manipulating a website to get one, then filing complaints with DOT, is completely unsympathetic behavior. Good for United, good for DOT. I just hope the unintended consequences of the actions of these greedy people isn’t a loosening of legitimate protections for legitimate consumers.

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