Five months ago, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser set off one of the state’s most famous companies.
In a letter to US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao on September 1, Weiser called for an investigation by Frontier Airlines‘policy changes for aviation changes and customer service practices during the COVID-19 pandemic and pressured fines if errors were erected.
Weiser said his office had received more than 100 Frontier complaints from people in 30 states, including Colorado, since the COVID-19 pandemic began increasing American life and shredding aircraft in March. Blink until the end of January. Pete Buttigieg is poised to be the country’s next transport secretary, and Weiser’s office has received more than 600 complaints about Frontier from people in 40 states.
“Looking at all the complaints we received during COVID-19 related to corporate errors, the largest number of complaints or any company was for Frontier Airlines,” Weiser told the Denver Post.
Concerned about the inaction of the US Department of Transportation on this point, Weiser is also leading a two-pronged attempt to lobby Congress to give more power to government offices like him to crack down on airlines that exploit consumers. This and other consumer protection recommendations are set out in a letter was signed by Weiser and 39 other state attorneys and sent to congressional leaders in October.
“We believe, given the importance of this sector and the impact on consumers, we need more oversight,” he said.
It is too early to know whether reforms will come. From a consumer perspective, the unparalleled impact that COVID-19 has had on air travel in Colorado and across the United States, makes people more aware of their rights as flyers, to be more convinced of how to protect themselves from unexpected changes in travel plans and driving decisions about which airlines deserve loyalty and which airlines should be avoided altogether.
“I used to travel a lot for other work. I flew Frontier exclusively then, ”said Amanda King, a communications professional living in Fort Collins. She said Frontier’s policy of not providing refunds to flyers that canceled flights during the pandemic cost her family nearly $ 800 last spring.
“This was just a nail in a coffin for me,” King said. “I do not fly with them.”
Frontier, for its part, has stuck to the position it took in September when Weiser called on the Fed to investigate that airline. The company has acted in good faith to treat passengers compassionately and fairly during the pandemic, it has been in compliance with federal rules and disputes all allegations to the contrary, spokeswoman Jennifer de le Cruz repeated in an email.
The company’s transport agreement – guidance document dealing with the relationship between the airline and its passengers, last updated in October – states that if a passenger cancels a ticket before a flight departs, they will retain the value of the ticket minus a service charge as an electronic credit that can be used to book another place on another flight for the next 90 days.
But Frontier has made its policies more flexible and forgiving during the pandemic, according to de la Cruz. It included steps such as waiving cancellations and change fees for all booked flights through February 28th.
“While credits for future trips originally required travelers to rebook within 90 days … we have since changed that the policy and credits issued are now valid for booking trips for up to one year,” de la Cruz said in an email. mail message and emphasized that the booking does not mean that the flight must be taken in the window, only that the ticket holder must reserve a seat within that time frame. “In addition, we have changed our policies so that we can use travel credits on multiple flights.”
Both of these changes came too late to help Seth McLean last summer.
Wheat Ridge resident planned to visit his native New York in late June with his wife and their three children. But then an amateur baseball tournament that he was going to play was interrupted, so McLean decided to play it safe with the virus and give up the trip.
He tried to call Frontier Airlines to cancel the family tickets from Denver International Airport to Newark, New Jersey, but could not reach anyone.
“Their lines were overwhelming,” McLean said. “The night before the flight I thought, ‘I do not want to drive 45 minutes to the airport just to talk to someone. “Finally, I called the airport and had them join a Frontier representative. ”
The woman he spoke to informed McLean about changes in his itinerary that he said he was never contacted about. The family’s direct flight to Newark had turned into a connecting flight with a stopover. And their original return flight had been completely canceled, causing the family to be stranded. After explaining to the airline representatives that he was not interested in rescheduling and wanted a refund, she finally offered him a credit for the full price of $ 286.72 for the five tickets.
“She assured me that it was as good as cash. No blackout dates. No fees. And the credit can be used until it is gone, he said.
The only catch, he was told, was that he needed to rebook within 90 days.
In August, a family member died and McLeans again planned a trip to New York. They used their Frontier credit to buy their tickets, which, thanks to a certain deep discount offered by the airline, cost a total of $ 87.92, leaving $ 198.80, which McLean thought he could still take advantage of. When he returned from the funeral and tried to book another flight, he discovered that the credit was gone.
McLean had already sent an email to a Frontiers customer service specialist about a $ 100 coupon he never received after joining the airline’s loyalty program in March. The frequency of back and forth emails escalated in the fall and winter, but by December it was clear to McLean that he was getting nowhere at his $ 198.80. He lodged a consumer complaint with Weisser’s office.
“It was just awful communication and zero follow through,” McLean said. “They really stole my money. And I’m not the only one. Two hundred dollars is a decent amount of money for me. ”
In King’s case, she, her husband and the younger of their two daughters planned to fly to Portland, Oregon, in mid-March to visit a campus. The campus and much of the city were closed so they contacted Frontier to cancel. They were also told that they had 90 days to rebook.
After waiting for things to play out in the pandemic, King and her husband called Frontier’s customer service the night before 90 days, hoping to explore alternatives, hopefully even a refund.
“They were just not going to give up,” King said.
When her husband mentioned that a rescue operation for the taxpayers helped keep the airline afloat, that was the end of the conversation. “They were charging,” she said.
The family also canceled a trip to New York City in May out of concern for the virus. But that trip was on Southwest Airlines, which was much more accommodating, King said. The family has since used the $ 1,000 credit from that cancellation for a handful of trips, including King and her husband who fly home after moving one of their daughters to California and the other to Nebraska. They still have some money left.
“They were very kind and compassionate,” King said of Southwest.
Southwest allows travelers to cancel up to ten minutes before takeoff and convert their ticket into a credit that can be used one year from the date it purchased the original, spokesman Dan Landson said in an email. For flights scheduled between March 1 and September 7 last year, the window was extended to two years and customers had the opportunity to hide the credit to reward points that could be stored for future bookings.
United Airlines, the largest airline doing business in Colorado, has an online refund form Customers can fill in to see if they are eligible for a credit or refund after canceling travel plans. Basic economy tickets are not eligible for a refund, says the airline’s spokeswoman Annabelle Cottee.
During the pandemic, United adopted a long-standing southwestern policy and permanently abolished amendment fees to be more consumer-friendly, Cottee said.
In addition to being called by Weiser, Frontier is also the subject of one lawsuit over its practice during the pandemic. Lawyers at the law firm Berger Montague filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Colorado on June 15 on behalf of passengers who had their flights canceled by the airline but did not receive a refund.
Frontier is not the only airline that exacerbated consumers during the COVID crisis.
Katie Huxford is a retiree from Longmont who spends her winters in the Phoenix area. She was scheduled to take an American Airlines flight from Phoenix to the Bahamas in March last year.
On February 18, before the World Health Organization officially declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, Huxford decided to cancel the trip. Her hotel gave her a full refund but American said her ticket could not be refunded regardless of the circumstances.
“I have some sympathy,” Huxford said, acknowledging that airlines have struggled to avoid going bankrupt during the crisis. “I wish they had been more adapted to what happened globally and were willing to cater. I would avoid flying with them again if possible. ”
The experience also gave Huxford a lesson in travel insurance. She had bought a basic policy before the trip but found out that it did not cover a pandemic. In the future, she will receive more extensive coverage.
“If you ever want to buy travel insurance, buy ‘Cancel for any reason,'” Huxford says.
Consumer education was a big part of Scott Keye’s focus during the early days of the pandemic and still is.
The founder and chief expert of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a company that flags the best deals at local airports for millions of paying subscribers, said that if an airline cancels a flight or makes a significant flight change, the airline is required by federal law to provide customers full refund if they request it.
The problem is that the government gives airlines space to define what qualifies as “significant”.
“It’s one of the things I wish they would spell out,” Keyes said. “An hour or two is generally the threshold for airlines. Just two hours is a good rule of thumb. If it is longer than that, you can demand a cash refund if you want one. ”
Keyes and his team are disseminating this information the company’s Twitter account and a newsletter to members, which discovered that airlines were less than forthcoming about these rules early on. The government twice issued instructions to airlines during the pandemic that they must follow this rule, Keyes said. Of course, if the passengers chose to cancel before an airline changed or canceled their flight, they were seen for the flight policy.
Despite his anger over how the airline handled its cancellation in June, McLean and his family – now a party of six after his wife gave birth to her fourth child in November – have another flight booked with Frontier in October. Again, he bought tickets for another purpose, a professional conference that was scheduled for next month but has since been canceled. This time when he called Frontier to rebook, the customer service representative stayed on the line with him until he received a confirmation message and verification that he had received some extra coupons for his protection.
Booking at Frontier will again come at a price and limited options, McLean said.
“I do not really have a choice,” McLean said. For my income group, it’s either Frontier or Spirit (Airlines), and I’ve flown Spirit. I will not do it again. ”
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