How To File An Air Travel Complaint With The DOT

Filed Under: Advice

A week ago Swiss made some first class award seats available through partner programs, including Aeroplan, which quite a few people took advantage of (or as Aeroplan calls it, “a small number of bookings”). Neither Aeroplan nor Swiss have reached out to any customers (as far as I know), though Aeroplan claims that over the next few days their agents will be “contacting each member to personally arrange first or business class redemptions on another Star Alliance carrier or to reinstate miles free of charge.”

I’m actually very curious to see how they do that. If they rebook people in business class that’s a downgrade, while they don’t have many partners on which they can rebook people in first class.

Yesterday Tiffany shared her thoughts on the situation, and I quite agree. A lot of people have asked how they can go around filing a complaint, and I figured I’d outline that in this post.

Why I plan on filing a DOT complaint

As I said several days ago, I don’t plan on suing Aeroplan, or anything like that. However, I do plan on filing a DOT complaint about the situation, not because I necessarily think it will cause Swiss to honor the tickets (even if the DOT tells them to, they may not), but rather because I’m curious how the DOT rules on this.

Since 2015, the DOT no longer requires airlines to honor mistake fares, though they do require airlines to reimburse passengers for any non-refundable expenses. However:

  • This isn’t a mistake fare, but rather a ticket booked at the regular mileage cost
  • The precedent I really take issue with lately is how long it takes airlines to contact passengers; it’s one thing if I were contacted within a day and told the ticket wouldn’t be honored, but it has been a week and I still haven’t heard from Aeroplan or Swiss

Ordinarily I’d wait until I get direct communication before filing a complaint, but I figure the sooner we get this process started, the better.

I’m not sure what will come of it, though historically the DOT is quite thoughtful when they investigate these situations, so it will be interesting to see what they decide.

How to file an air travel complaint with the DOT

The process of filing a DOT complaint is surprisingly easy. Just go to this page and fill out the online form. You’ll be asked to enter your personal information, the details of your flight and complaint (which can be up to 3,000 characters), and will also be given the option of attaching a supporting document.

If you’re in a similar boat and aren’t happy, I also recommend filing a complaint. Like I said, if nothing else the DOT should issue some sort of a statement, and I’m very curious where they stand.

I’ll share my own complaint below, which I intentionally kept short, as I always find to be the most effective for this kind of stuff.

On November 30, 2017, I redeemed 160,000 Aeroplan miles for two Star Alliance first class award tickets from Los Angeles to Zurich to Athens, with both flights on Swiss. These tickets were for travel on _________ (e-ticket #_______). This availability showed up on Aeroplan’s website, and it’s not the first time I redeemed Aeroplan miles for Swiss first class. The tickets were issued quickly, and I was able to select seats for the Swiss flights.

It has now been week since I booked, and my reservation shows as canceled on the Swiss website and intact on the Aeroplan website, though Aeroplan has issued statements indicating that these flights won’t be honored. I haven’t directly been contacted by either company in this time, even though the decision has apparently been made not to honor these tickets.

This seems like a clear breach of contract given that I had a confirmed reservation that was booked at the regular mileage price, not to mention how long it has taken for the companies to communicate with affected passengers (I’m still waiting to be contacted).

Bottom line

I’m curious to see how the DOT rules in this situation. Usually they’re pretty good with their analysis, and I wonder what their take will be. My biggest issue lately is the amount of time it takes airlines to inform passengers they’re not going to honor tickets. Recently we saw a situation where Delta and Virgin Australia took over a week to tell passengers they wouldn’t honor tickets — fortunately Delta came to their senses and honored them in the end.

If you booked one of these Swiss tickets, do you plan on filing a DOT complaint? How do you think the DOT will rule here?

  1. From a legal perspective any claim would be dead in the water. Not that it makes what Swiss has done in cancelling the bookings the ‘right’ thing to do.

    When you are finishing your ticket purchase (whether it be with cash or miles) and you tick that little box ‘I accept the terms and conditions’ you’ve pretty much signed away any recompense when the airline cancels a booking especially with plenty of notice in advance of travel.

    That’s why when nearly EVERY airline that does honour ‘mistakes/overshights/blah blah’ always includes those magic words in their acceptance – ‘…however, as a gesture of goodwill..’. And that’s exactly what it is – a PR decision to curtail any bad press. They always make it clear the law is on their side.

  2. Sorry forgot to add….you mention frustration at the time lag it sometimes takes airlines to acknowledge the mistake. This is because I can bet during that time they are taking legal advice to make their case watertight.

  3. Award seats have always been murky when it comes to any legal claim imho
    Im reasonably certain you have less wiggle room if something goes wrong including insurance in a crash if any
    Loyalty programs are a giant Ponzi scheme! You put money into it and they only allow you to take your money out when they issue permission
    Watch out they don’t change their mind though like in this situation.
    I enjoyed seeing the dot complaint form 🙂

  4. Is DOT a US body? If so, the Swiss will give them the finger of course as DOT surely has no jurisdiction outside the US.
    If I had booked the same out of Zimbabwe do I then complain to the Zimbabwe DOT?
    I would guess the place to claim would be somewhere in Switzerland.

  5. Bad idea, the reason DOT changed its policy in 2015 is because the TPG sheep flooded the agency with complaints about the mistake fare. The DOT realized that flyers were abusing the system. Technically maybe Swiss should honor its mistake, but DOT officers won’t be shedding tears over people who couldn’t book a first class ticket with points. The DOT is set up for people with more pressing issues, and the more you flood their system the more callous they’ll become.

    Lucky, you always say that in this game you win some and you lose some. Looks like in this game you’ve forgotten about your wise words.

  6. Playing devil’s advocate…I don’t think airlines have to honor tickets that were booked under a technical glitch. Not sure what the case was with this, but I’d venture to say that since Swiss first class awards have never been accessible outside of Miles and More, something happened in the background that unintentionally opened up the space.

    I’m also not a lawyer, but I think that since this was a mileage ticket, and we technically don’t own our miles, that anybody who booked one of these never really used their own money, but rather the airline’s loyalty program currency. That means by booking, you were never really “out” anything. So when the airline cancels, the airline isn’t really committing any personal wrongdoing to you.

    If your issue is with the timing, I’d keep in mind that it probably takes some time for Swiss to even realize the issue, understand where the problem is, fix it, and then to inform their partners (like Aeroplan). This isn’t as simple as an offering on one airline’s website for flights on their own metal.

    Personally, I’d let it go since not sure really what the case is. The DOT has bigger things to worry about anyway; I don’t think they’re too interested in acting on complaints from people who couldn’t keep their glitched first class awards.

  7. I think the DoT will rule that as AC sold you a ticket LAX-ATH, they are required to accommodate you on those dates, between those cities. If they are unable to accommodate you in first class (obviously on another partner, because AC doesn’t have F), then involuntary downgrade rules should apply (cost difference between cabin prices). What will be interesting to see is whether DoT orders them to make space available in C or whether they will be ok with downgrades all the way to Y. I cannot possibly imagine a world where DoT would order Aeroplan or AC to PURCHASE you seats in F on Swiss. Nothing in law or the CoC compels AC to fly you on a partner’s flight if the partner refuses to carry you (that would be an issue for AC and Swiss to hash out, based on their interline contract).

  8. I am not planning on filing a DOT complaint, because IMHO filing a DOT complaint over an award flight ticket getting cancelled that was not supposed to be bookable is ridiculous.
    I don’t care who’s at fault here – if they honor my ticket, great, but if not, meh…moving on.
    I’m still grateful I can fly around the world with minimal cost using miles, and it doesn’t have to be Swiss F. (My Swiss F ticket got cancelled as well.)
    Seriously you need to get over the idea of fighting tickets you were not supposed to be able to book in the first place.
    Someone at Swiss might be losing his/her job after mistakenly releasing F award seats…do you really want to take advantage of it?
    While I admire your life and really enjoy your blog, I am really disappointed in you this time.

  9. Don’t call it a breach of contract, that’s outside DOT’s jurisdiction (and one of the few claims that’s not preempted by the ADA). DOT has jurisdiction to address unfair or deceptive business practices.

  10. Of course, Lucky can file a complaint with the US DOT. The flight originates in LA, which gives US jurisdiction in this case. Even if it has a transfer point or arrival through or within US territory, customers do have the rights to file complaints with one or more official entities in the US.

  11. I bet they will say miles are not real money and the airlines can do whatever they want. You forget that all federal agencies now are under direction to favor corporations over consumers every single time. That is the direction and they just need to make up an excuse to explain it.

  12. People need to stop blaming Lucky for pointing out Swiss First Class avails. Last time this occurred his First Class Swiss ticket was honored, so he had no way of knowing that this time around they would cancel.

  13. Companies cannot just make you waive all rights they want. There are limits. Everyone should absolutely file a DOT complaint. Do it!

  14. @JL couldn’t agree with you more! People need to move on now and let it go. If you want to fly Swiss F then you are going to have to cough up the $10k plus to do it. The DOT is not going to make Aeroplan buy you a revenue ticket in F on Swiss, for something that is clearly an error and shouldn’t have been bookable in the first place. They are only obligated to offer you a reasonable alternative with Air Canada or another Star carrier, or refund your miles.

  15. also, a week without communication is nothing. Try UK companies’ response times, some are within 28 WORKING days

  16. I have received a voicemail from Aeroplan today saying that it was a mistake to issue Swiss F tickets and that they are rebooking me in business class to my destination. The problem is – the F tickets that I booked to Zurich were on a direct flight and the tickets in business that they are offering have 1 stop. Either that or refund of miles.
    Unfortunately, I had direct business class tickets on the same flight that I booked F via Aeroprlan, but I cancelled them as soon as I got ‘confirmed” (ticket numbers were issued, and I was able to select seats on Swiss website – so I thought it was “confirmed”, silly me). So now – after all this, it feels awful to accept business class tickets that are not even direct.
    My question is – should I call Aeroplan and tell them I do not accept? Or what is the course of action here except filing a DOT complain?

  17. It seems to me ‘black letter law’ would say a contract is a contract. If party A offers a product or service at a given price, and party B accepts that offer and makes payment (in dollars or other valuable consideration) then a contract exists. There has been an offer and acceptance. The acceptance of the offer is communicated to the seller. That’s a binding contract. If Swiss was not going to offer the award travel for mileage points it was their duty to timely remove the offer from Aeroplan’s website. As long as the offer was published, and accepted, Swiss should honor the deal. Otherwise, what’s to stop airlines from canceling low price cash ticket transactions so they can see the seat later for higher price?

  18. @ron, if only there were such a thing as the Zimbabwe DOT!! (Or if there is, kindly point me in their direction.). I’m still trying to find a way to claim compensation from the sad excuse for an airline they call Air Zimbabwe.

  19. I flew in Swiss ‘F’ from Zurich to JFK in 2010 for $3,600 roundtrip via a consolidator. I mention this because people commenting above think it is only miles or full fare…and that’s not true.

  20. You redeemed 160k miles for 2 F tickets? What surcharge were you on? US – EU in F is 70k…
    At least with Aeroplan, where my now cancelled ticket came with that price tag.

  21. @ Joe — Europe is split into two regions, with a first class ticket to Greece costing 80,000 miles per person in first class.

  22. It is helpful to know the procedure for filing a DOT complaint. Complaining is fine. Anyone can do that for any reason. The question is what possible basis is there for complaining (and expecting some tangible result) under DOT or airline rules, regulations or obligations other than the airline did something you did not like. As far as ff programs, it seems there can be no such thing as breach of contract because there is no enforceable contract.

  23. ben, change “go around” to “go about”, it reads as if the reader might want to avoid a complaint lol

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