Federal investigators are cracking down on deceptive airline advertising and confusing frequent-flier promotions under a Transportation Department program announced this week.
"We still receive thousands of complaints each year," said Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. "People are generally frustrated and very confused."After receiving about 7,000 consumer complaints in 1993, the department established a consumer protection office last month with the power to investigate air carriers and review their advertising.
There will be more extensive scrutiny of two-for-one and 50-percent-off fare promotions, tour operators' handling of money paid in advance, overbooking practices, disclosure of limitations on frequent-flier awards and airline compliance with rules for access for travelers with disabilities.
"Consumers expect seats to be available at advertised prices. They expect seats to be available in the frequent-flier programs in which they participate," said Pena.
The department's initiative involves no new regulations, only better enforcement of those already in place, said Pena.
Reuven Wertheim, chairman of the Florida-based Carnival Air Lines, says stricter enforcement will level the playing field for both large and small carriers.
"We've been very careful to make sure the public knows exactly what we're trying to sell to them so it would be good to know everyone else is doing the same thing," said Wertheim.
Since the heightened surveillance was outlined in a Dec. 20 letter from Pena to the heads of all 27 U.S. airlines, the department has cited about a dozen carriers for misleading advertising.
Hoyte B. Decker Jr., director of the new Office of Consumer Protection, declined to name the airlines but said the department generally took issue with ads promoting holiday and winter fare sales and questioned whether they accurately disclosed the number of seats available at reduced fares.
The department is also targeting ads that seem to offer impossibly low fares only to specify in small print that the fares are for one-way travel and require the purchase of a return ticket.
"The fine print, that's not acceptable to us," said Sam Podberesky, the department's assistant general counsel.
The use of deceptive each-way fare advertisements has been increasing in recent weeks and the department is considering unspecified enforcement actions, Podberesky said.
One week after the Supreme Court ruled that consumers can sue airlines for retroactively restricting frequent-flier benefits, Pena said his investigators will also be monitoring unreasonable seat restrictions and unannounced blackout dates for the use of frequent-flier awards.
"If we uncover repeated, broad and significant problems," Pena said, "I think at some point ... everyone is going to be asking themselves questions about whether (frequent-flier) programs should continue."