Do airlines always give out accurate compensation information? DOT fines say no.

Is your airline telling you everything? After a government operation that netted four airlines, the unsurprising answer is: No.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) dispatched plainclothes investigators to a dozen American airports under the code name “Task Force Lightning.” When it comes to the proper treatment of air travelers, regulators wanted to ensure that airlines’ front-line employees knew the rules.

Many didn’t.

Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines failed the surprise inspections, incurring small, but embarrassing, fines from the DOT’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings.

A closer look at the enforcement actions, which were issued in August, points to a truth about flying that you can pack on your next trip: Even the most reliable airlines often can’t be trusted to tell you everything.

The investigation covered compliance with a wide range of rules, including denied-boarding statements and liability limits for lost luggage. If your flight is oversold and you’re denied boarding, your airline is usually required to compensate you on the spot — or within 24 hours, under certain circumstances — with cash or a check. The amount varies based on the length of your delay and whether your flight is domestic or international. Currently, that amount could be up to $1,350.

When it comes to luggage, federal regulations say an airline may not limit its liability for provable direct or consequential damages resulting from the disappearance of, damage to or delay in delivery of a passenger’s baggage to an amount less than $3,500 per passenger. The DOT publishes these rules in its helpful online brochure — FlyRights —which can be found on the DOT site.

Consider Alaska Airlines, an air carrier whose customer-service scores are among the industry’s highest and which has an enviable reputation. Its agents failed to produce current copies of the airline’s written denied-boarding statement. On several occasions, employees showed DOT staff outdated copies of the denied-boarding statement that listed compensation amounts which were, in some cases, as many as five years out of date. Also, signage at certain airport ticket counters and boarding gates claimed that the airline’s domestic baggage liability was limited by regulation to amounts of less than $3,500.

Alaska Airlines was fined $40,000.

How about Southwest, another carrier with a clean reputation when it comes to service? During compliance inspections, some of its agents failed to show up-to-date copies of Southwest’s written denied-boarding statements. One agent in Oakland, Calif., offered “only a partial copy” of the statement, which contained compensation amounts $25 to $50 below the actual amounts.

Like those at Alaska Airlines, Southwest agents in Salt Lake City produced ticket notices or displayed signage at some airport ticket counters that purported to limit the carrier’s domestic baggage liability to amounts less than $3,500. Some of the information offered by the agents was more than three years out of date, according to the DOT.

Southwest was fined $40,000.

The presence of American and United will probably come as less of a shock. And American’s rap sheet will look familiar by now. It includes failing to produce a denied-boarding statement and offering outdated statements, some more than five years out of date. Total fine: $45,000. Ditto for United, which is said to have been unable to show copies of its denied boarding statement at either the ticket counter or the boarding gate. It also produced outdated copies of the statement. United was fined $35,000.

In the DOT consent orders (directives adopted to avoid litigation) the airlines issued boilerplate rebuttals that say they take their obligations to provide accurate information seriously and are committed to delivering a positive travel experience. Taken together, however, the documents suggest that while airlines are required to offer information about compensation for denied boardings and lost luggage, they may not always do so.

Air travelers say “Task Force Lightning” is a good start, but they want to see more.

“The government should have the airlines go back and identify every instance where incorrect information has been provided and correct it,” says Joe Farrell, a lawyer and frequent traveler from San Antonio Heights, Calif. “That would be a meaningful exercise of regulatory power. Fining them chicken feed results in behavior that is no different.”

Others agree that the fines were not enough.

“I’m not sure that’s much of a deterrent to airlines,” agrees David Brakebill, who works for a nonprofit organization in Key West, Fla. “If the DOT were serious, they’d have fined them in the hundreds of millions.”

But insiders at the DOT, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, say the goal of its task force was educating frontline airline employees, rather than just managers and executives at headquarters, and they tell me “Lightning” may strike again, with more plainclothes investigators at airports.

For the time being, check to see what your rights are when your flight is delayed or your luggage is lost.

Your airline may not be a reliable source.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend