American Airlines has relented and put its full tariff or ‘terms and conditions’ back onto its website after a Department of Transportation complaint.
They had removed the the legalese entirely in favor of a plain language FAQ-style conditions of carriage page. But the contract of carriage incorporated the tariff by reference, customers effectively agreed to it when they purchased a ticket, but the airline had removed those rules from a place customers could easily see it. That document matters because, for instance:
- The general tariff includes more detail that the ‘conditions of carriage’ page on proper handling during irregular operations
- As well as when refunds are due to customers (including how downgrade compensation should be paid).
After consumer (and sometimes blog reader) Mike Borsetti filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation, American updated its website to tell consumers they could email to ask for a copy. And in their response to the complain said that no DOT rule actually requires them to put the document online (since DOT rules on the subject were written long before websites).
The question at issue then was whether an airline could keep its rules off its website even while selling tickets there, because DOT didn’t update its public disclosure rules for the information age. Their argument was, effectively, that a website is not a “ticket sales office” because a ticket sales office must be a physical place, not merely where tickets are sold.
Of course it still seemed strange that the airline would resist putting its rules up on its website, and the DOT could still find that their decision not to do so was ‘unfair and deceptive’. Wouldn’t the simple and honorable thing to do be just to make the rules customers are subject to available in the place that the airline markets its tickets, selling upwards of $60 million a day in travel?
They’ve now done so, and I asked American the reason for the change. They a href=”https://beta.regulations.gov/document/DOT-OST-2020-0178-0011″ target=_blank>pointed me to its latest response to the DOT complaint which explains,
- All they had been trying to do was “focus passengers on” the incomplete “plain English explanation of American’s rules and policies” they did have on their website.
- But it’s easier to post the full tariff than keep arguing, plus Covid-19 and they’ve let go a lot of staff, then so be it.
American does so based on its sincere belief that the public interest is best served by preserving the third-party complaint system and the Department’s limited resources for the resolution of live controversies involving alleged violations of actual regulatory obligations with the potentialfor cognizable harm.
And, in the midst of a global pandemic that poses unprecedented challenges for the aviation industry and has decimated travel demand, wreaked havoc on carrier balance sheets, and led to the painful involuntary furloughing of tens of thousands of airline employees in the U.S. alone, American does not want to divert its attention from more pressing and immediate matters in order to continue litigating this particular case, especially where the accommodation sought – but not required – can be extended with minimal operational disruption.
Doing what they should have done already should be sufficient to moot the complaint and avoid a finding of an unfair and deceptive practice that warrants a fine, especially since they’re asking the DOT to take pity on them ‘because Covid’. The most important thing here is that the full rules are available to those who wish to see and understand them, or those who wish to ask experts to help them better understand.