Passenger Right to Record at Airports and on Airplanes?

Passengers have every reason to record airline staff and onboard events–documenting onboard disputes (such as whether a passenger is in fact disruptive or a service animal disobedient), service deficiencies (perhaps a broken seat or inoperational screen), and controversial remarks from airline personnel (like statements of supposed rules, which not match actual contract provisions). For the largest five US airlines, no contract provision–general tariff, conditions of carriage, or fare rules–prohibits such recordings. Yet airline staff widely tell passengers that they may not record–citing “policies” passengers couldn’t reasonably know and certainly didn’t agree to in the usual contract sense. (For example, United’s policy is a web page not mentioned in the online purchase process. American puts its anti-recording policy in its inflight magazine, where passengers only learn it once onboard.) If passengers refuse to comply, airline staff have threatened all manner of sanctions including denial of transport and arrest. In one incident in July 2016, a Delta gate agent even assaulted a 12-year-old passenger who was recording her remarks.

In a Petition for Rulemaking filed this week with the US Department of Transportation, Mike Borsetti and I ask DOT to affirm that passengers have the right to record what they lawfully see and hear on and around aircraft. We explain why such recordings are in the public interest, and we present the troubling experiences of passengers who have tried to record but have been punished for doing so. We conclude with specific proposed provisions to protect passenger rights.

One need not look far to see the impact of passenger recordings. When United summoned security officers who assaulted passenger David Dao, who had done nothing worse than peacefully remain in the seat he had paid for, five passenger recordings provided the crucial proof to rebut the officers’ false claim that Dao was “swinging his arms up and down with a closed fist,” then “started flailing and fighting” as he was removed (not to mention United CEO Oscar Munoz’s false contention that Dao was “disruptive and belligerent”). Dao and the interested public are fortunate that video disproved these allegations. But imagine if United had demanded that other passengers onboard turn off their cameras before security officers boarded, or delete their recordings afterward and prove that they had done so, all consistent with passengers experiences we report in our Petition for Rulemaking. Had United made such demands, the false allegations would have gone unchallenged and justice would not have been done. Hence our insistence that recordings are proper even–indeed, especially–without the permission of the airline staff, security officers, and others who are recorded.

Our filing:

Petition for Rulemaking: Passenger Right to Record

DOT docket with public comment submission form

David Dao on United Airlines (teaching materials)

Edelman, Benjamin, and Jenny Sanford. “David Dao on United Airlines.” Harvard Business School Case 917-026, May 2017. (educator access at HBP. request a courtesy copy.)

In widely circulated videos, United staff and Chicago security forcibly remove a passenger from his paid seat on an aircraft, injuring him severely. United leadership must decide how to respond to public outcry.

Teaching Materials:

David Dao on United Airlines – Teaching Note (HBP 917027)

How to file and pursue a consumer complaint against an airline – and the DOT “formal complaint” process

In the United States, there are seven basic options for a consumer who wishes to pursue a dispute with an airline, travel agent, or tour operator:

  1. Informal correspondence with airline customer relations staff. Easy, usually via web site submission. You’ll typically get a response. (Indeed, US Department of Transportation rules require an airline to send a substantive written response within 60 days.) But there’s no guarantee that the complaint will be handled by someone who truly understands, nor that the response will be helpful or correct. The airline may anticipate that many people complain but few follow up on an unfavorable response — reducing their incentive to provide a full resolution or even conduct a complete investigation. Some customer relations staff may not have sufficient information or training to investigate unusual problems.
  2. Credit card chargeback. This is most useful if there is a recent, easily-provable, and impeccably documented overcharge. In principle, the merchant (airline) is obliged to demonstrate your acceptance of the charge and their performance of the promised service — and in principle the burden of proof is on their side. Furthermore, credit card disputes are adjudicated by card network staff who do not directly report to airline management, reducing some conflicts of interest. Credit card procedures are particularly useful to passengers in case of bankruptcy of an airline or travel agent, obliging the airline’s bank to provide the refund even if the airline cannot, whereas other methods typically are typically unable to assist in that circumstance. Furthermore, a successful credit card chargeback yields a direct payment (refund) to the passenger, with no need to pursue a collection effort against a distant company. Nonetheless, I am told that most credit card disputes are resolved in favor of airlines, as their positions are supported by at least an appearance of reliable records. Moreover, credit card dispute processes make it difficult to challenge records as unreliable or incorrect, or to challenge airline policies as violating law or regulation. These shortfalls make credit card disputes a poor fit for complex matters or unusual allegations.
  3. Litigation, most often in small claims court. Some judges are open to the suggestion that airlines screwed up, broke the law, or even failed to follow their own rules. Of course there’s no guarantee that the judge will be an expert or will be able to take the time to understand the unusual situation you describe or the specialized rules and laws pertaining to aviation. Decisions are usually unpublished and informal, making it easy for passengers’ arguments not to be considered in full.
  4. Pursue special state claims. Some states offer “seller of travel” laws (which could apply based on your residence, the state where the ticket was purchased, or the state where the online travel agency is based). These occasionally provide some recourse or compensation, for example if a travel agency or tour operator goes out of business or absconds with your money.
  5. Pursue any redress available under foreign law. Consider such options if the flight was international (potentially including domestic segments of an international itinerary) or the ticket was purchased from an airline office, travel agency, or tour operator outside the United States. Some countries offer greater protections than the United States. That said, most consumers would face significant difficulties pursuing claims in a jurisdiction where they do not reside.
  6. Informal DOT complaint (via this web form). DOT routes your complaint to a higher caliber of representative from the airline, compared to #1, and sometimes these staff are better positioned to assess your claim, consider the merit in your position, and provide a meaningful resolution. In principle DOT reviews the resolution of each matter, and this oversight or potential oversight imposes causes airlines to be more careful in responding to consumers’ informal DOT complaints. On the other hand, the proceeding is nonetheless secret and off-the-record. Your complaint will do nothing to help anyone else and typically won’t cause a change that fixes the underlying problem. DOT staff are sometimes involved in mediating these disputes, but you can’t count on this kind of assistance. Indeed, the Office of Inspector General found that the DOT’s reviews of passenger complaints are insufficient to determine whether airlines engage in unfair and deceptive practices.
  7. A formal DOT complaint via the process detailed below. These proceedings are formal and on the record. You’ll be corresponding with an airline’s designated representative, typically an attorney. All filings will be published on the web for anyone interested to read, and Airlineinfo and its Twitter feed make it particularly easy for the interested public to find and follow these disputes. DOT staff ultimately prepare a written decision summarizing each party’s position and offering an assessment. These factors increase the likelihood of a full investigation and proper analysis. That said, airlines take the position that DOT lacks authority to order refunds to affected passengers. Furthermore, decisions are often slow, commonly taking a year or longer.

This page elaborates on the seventh option, formal DOT complaints, as this process is not widely understood and not widely used despite its important potential benefits as detailed above.


Filing a formal complaint with the DOT: instructions and what to expect

For those inclined to proceed with formal DOT complaints, here are my tips based on the several such complaints I have filed and based on others’ complaints that I have followed.

There are five steps to filing a formal complaint with the DOT:

  1. Use my Microsoft Word Complaint Template to write your complaint. Explain the airline’s violation as clearly as you can. Use exhibits if needed to support the factual allegations. Consider exhibits to show relevant screenshots, call recording transcripts, ticket printouts, correspondence with customer relations, etc. Be sure to fill in your name in complaint header. On the title page and first page, leave the ___ placeholder (after the year) as docket number in your complaint; a docket number gets assigned by DOT staff after submission of the initial complaint. (If you use the template to file a reply or other supplemental document, insert the docket number then.)

    Avoid including personal information you do not want to reveal to the public. If needed, you can prepare two versions of the file – one “public” (redacted, for uploading to in step 4 below) and one private (with ticket numbers, passenger names, etc. for sending to DOT staff and airline attorneys in step 5 below).

    See sample complaints to confirm format and get a better understanding of typical style.

  2. Find the registered agent for the airline you’re complaining about. Use the DOT’s dockets for agents for service of process for foreign airlines or for domestic airlines, as appropriate. Insert the agent’s name and email onto the Certificate of Service page where indicated. After finding the agent’s name, you may need to use web search to find the corresponding email address. Many large airlines use attorneys at outside law firms as their designated agents. In that case, you can check the law firm’s web site or even call the law firm’s main line to request the attorney’s email address.
  3. Save the Word file into PDF for upload and submission.
  4. File the public version of the complaint on Go to the unusually-named Instructions on Filing a Submission to DOT–OST for applications/petitions/exemptions and any other items for which a Docket does not exist. Comment can be simply “Please see attached complaint”. Use the Upload Files feature to submit the public version of your complaint PDF. Provide your name. You do not need to provide your contact information through this tool. Note the Comment Tracking Number that results from your successful submission.
  5. Serve the private version of the complaint on the airline’s agent and on the DOT by email:

    To: [agent email from step 2],;;

    Subject: Third party complaint of [your name] – [airline name] – [date]


    A redacted public complaint (as to certain practices of [airline name]) was filed on earlier today. Attached is the full version including private information. Comment Tracking Number: [insert comment tracking number]

    Thank you,

    [your name]

The DOT contacts change from time to time. The three DOT contacts listed above are current (to my knowledge) as of October 2016.

Here’s what to expect after filing:

Once your complaint is docketed at, you’ll usually get an email from DOT staff to that effect. If not, wait a few days, then run a search for your last name on Each docket page provides a mechanism for automatic email notification when new filings are made in that docket. I highly recommend using that notification mechanism, including renewing it annually if your complaint remains unresolved after one year. Sometimes DOT or airline staff may forget to (or otherwise fail to) notify you of a new filing.

Formal complaints are governed by DOT rules contained in 14 CFR 302 subpart D. It’s useful to read those rules to learn what to expect.

An airline must respond to your complaint (by filing its “Answer”) within 15 days, unless it requests and receives an extension from DOT. DOT staff usually provide such an extension when requested. Airline representatives will ask you to accept, which you virtually must – in the sense that if you declined, the DOT would probably grant the extra time anyway. It’s also polite to grant the extra time; the benefit of this formal complaint process is its formality and its rigor, not its speed.

There is no guarantee of any particular timing for DOT judgment or resolution. Many complaints have gone more than a year without resolution. After a lengthy wait, you could inquire with DOT staff or contact your federal representatives to seek their assistance. I have not used these methods.

In general, a complainant has no right to respond to an airline’s Answer. If you want to file such a response (a “Reply”), you should seek agreement from the airline to do so (typically followed by a counter-response from the airline, called a “Surreply”). You must then seek DOT permission to reply. This can be an informal email to DOT attorneys, CC’ing the airline representative. You may want to propose a maximum page length, timing, and purpose. You’ll adapt the Complaint Template to file your reply, including replacing the “Complaint” heading with “Reply” (in every location including first page caption, second page caption, first page header, and subsequent page header) and adding the docket number on the first and second pages.

Once you file a formal complaint, you should avoid informal communications with DOT staff on the same subject.

Others have reported that airlines sometimes attempt to “buy off” a complainant privately – provide some money or whatever a complainant is requesting, in exchange for the complainant withdrawing the complaint. If you accept such an offer and withdraw your complaint, there will probably be no further proceedings in the docket, and hence nothing to benefit other passengers with similar problems. On the other hand you’ll get an immediate personal benefit.

I am unable to provide legal assistance to complainants, but I am often able to provide procedural pointers based on my experience in this area. Contact me.




My sincere thanks to Edward Hasbrouck, whose special knowledge of all things aviation-consumer spurred my interest in this subject. Thanks also to Mike Borsetti, whose knowledge of fare rules helped me understand my rights.

Formal DOT Complaints – A Guide for Consumers

When something goes wrong in air travel, consumers often need to reach an appropriate resolution with airline staff. But the standard methods are not always sufficient — sometimes ordinary customer relations staff are intransigent or just unresponsive, and a credit card chargeback is a poor fit for disputes that can be surprisingly complex.

In today’s post, I present a dispute resolution channel most consumers do not know about: formal complaints before the US Department of Transportation. The process lives up to the “formal” label, requiring documents formatted in a particular way, submitted through both web upload and email (neither particularly intuitive), with all proceedings posted for public review. But this approach typically goes straight to airline attorneys, and the on-the-record public proceeding helps assure high-quality discussion. In today’s piece, I explore known dispute resolution methods, then give interested consumers a guide to the DOT Formal Complaint process.

My guidance:

How to file and pursue a consumer complaint against an airline – and the DOT “formal complaint” process

Aviation Consumer Protection – Research and Complaints

Air travelers often trust that airlines will treat them fairly, in accordance with law and regulation. In fact, problems abound. I have gathered my research on aviation consumer protection matters, including findings of impropriety as well as complaints to the US Department of Transportation. I also include selected significant complaints by others. My tabulation:

Aviation Consumer Protection – Research and Complaints

Distribution at American Airlines (teaching materials)

Edelman, Benjamin. “Distribution at American Airlines (A).” Harvard Business School Case 909-035, January 2009. (Revised June 2009.) (educator access at HBP. request a courtesy copy.)

American Airlines sought to reduce the fees it pays to global distribution services (GDSs)–such as SABRE–to reach travel agents. But GDSs held significant tactical advantages. For example, GDSs had signed long-term exclusive contracts with the corporate customers who were American’s best customers. Furthermore, travel agents tended to favor whichever GDS offered the highest commissions–impeding price competition among GDSs. Against this backdrop, American considered how best to cut its GDS costs.


Distribution at American Airlines (B) – Supplement (HBP 909036)

Distribution at American Airlines (C) – Supplement (HBP 913034)

Distribution at American Airlines (D) – Supplement (HBP 913035)

Teaching Materials:

Distribution at American Airlines (A-D) – Teaching Note (HBP 909059)

Distribution at American Airlines – Slide Supplement (HBP 914039)

Objections to Tentative Decision and Order to Show Cause (IATA 787)

Edelman, Benjamin. “Objections to Tentative Decision and Order to Show Cause (IATA 787).” June 2014. (Before the Department of Transportation.)

I critique Order 2014-5-7 (Docket No. DOT-OST-2013-0048-0415) to the extent that the DOT permits, or purports to permit, airlines to sell tickets other than in accordance with published tariffs. I argue that tariffs provide important benefits to passengers and should be continued notwithstanding the proposed IATA Resolution 787.

Misrepresentation of Fuel Surcharges in Airline Price Advertising with Xiaoxiao Wu

Air travel tickets often include surprisingly large amounts described as “tax.” In one round trip New York-Paris ticket we quoted in January 2012, the fare was listed as $230 while “tax” was listed as $598.14 — fully 72% of the listed total. If government taxes were actually as large as Air France claims, many passengers might want to complain to responsible politicians and regulators. And passengers might have a different view of cramped seating, unpalatable food, or other service shortfalls on a $230 ticket versus a $828.14 ticket. But in fact, specifically contrary to Air France’s characterization of $598.14 as “tax,” the majority of the “tax” was not charged by any government, airport, or similar authority, and rather was retained by Air France to defray its ordinary operating expenses.

Our investigation uncovers a variety of examples in which airlines have mischaracterized various surcharges as “tax” and otherwise failed to satisfy applicable price advertising regulation. We present proof in both screenshots and recorded telephone calls, preserving clear records of carriers’ misrepresentations. Details:

Misrepresentation of Fuel Surcharges in Airline Price Advertising

Remedies for Search Bias

Disclosure: I serve as a consultant to various companies that compete with Google. But I write on my own — not at the suggestion or request of any client, without approval or payment from any client.

In a forthcoming paper (update, November 2011: paper is available), I’ll survey the problem of search bias — search engines granting preferred placement and/or terms to their own links or to others’ links chosen for improper purposes. What purposes are improper? Given others’ work in that area, I’ll defer my thoughts on that subject to the paper. Today I’d like to focus on remedies — what tactics a dominant search engine ought not employ due to their detrimental effects on competition, and how prohibiting those tactics would help assure fair competition in search and related businesses.

The prospect of legal or regulatory oversight of search results has attracted skepticism. A search industry news site recently questioned the wisdom of investigating search bias by arguing that, even if bias were uncovered, “it’s not clear what any remedy would be.” James Grimmelmann last month critiqued the suggestion that search engines can be biased, and he argued that even if such bias exists, the legal system cannot usefully prevent it. Discomfort with the prospect of legal intervention extends even to those who ultimately see a need for oversight: For example, Pasquale and Bracha title a recent paper Federal Search Commission?, ending the title with a question mark to credit the immediate shortfalls of an overly bureaucratic approach. Meanwhile, Google’s caricature of regulation warns of government-mandated homogeneous results and unblockable web spam, offering a particularly pronounced view of search regulation as intrusive and undesirable.

I envision an alternative approach for policy intervention in this area — addressing the improprieties that various sites have alleged and stopping specific practices that ought not continue, while avoiding unnecessary restrictions on search engines’ activities.

Experience from Airline Reservation Systems: Avoiding Improper Ranking Factors

A first insight comes from recognizing that regulators have already — successfully! — addressed the problem of bias in information services. One key area of intervention was customer reservation systems (CRS’s), the computer networks that let travel agents see flight availability and pricing for various major airlines. Three decades ago, when CRS’s were largely owned by the various airlines, some airlines favored their own flights. For example, when a travel agent searched for flights through Apollo, a CRS then owned by United Airlines, United flights would come up first — even if other carriers offered lower prices or nonstop service. The Department of Justice intervened, culminating in rules prohibiting any CRS owned by an airline from ordering listings “us[ing] any factors directly or indirectly relating to carrier identity” (14 CFR 255.4). Certainly one could argue that these rules were an undue intrusion: A travel agent was always free to find a different CRS, and further additional searches could have uncovered alternative flights. Yet most travel agents hesitated to switch CRS’s, and extra searches would be both time-consuming and error-prone. Prohibiting biased listings was the better approach.

The same principle applies in the context of web search. On this theory, Google ought not rank results by any metric that distinctively favors Google. I credit that web search considers myriad web sites — far more than the number of airlines, flights, or fares. And I credit that web search considers more attributes of each web page — not just airfare price, transit time, and number of stops. But these differences only grant a search engine more room to innovate. These differences don’t change the underlying reasoning, so compelling in the CRS context, that a system provider must not design its rules to systematically put itself first.

I credit that some metrics might incidentally favor Google even as they are, on their face, neutral. But periodic oversight by a special master (or similar arbiter) could accept allegations of such metrics; both in the US and in Europe, a similar approach oversaw disputes as to what documentation Microsoft made available to those wishing to interoperate with Microsoft software.

Evaluating Manual Ranking Adjustments through Compulsory Disclosures

An alternative approach to avoiding improper ranking factors would require disclosure of all manual adjustments to search results. Whenever Google adjusts individual results, rather than selecting results through algorithmic rules of general applicability, the fact of that adjustment would be reported to a special master or similar authority, along with the affected site, duration, reason, and specific person authorizing the change. The special master would review these notifications and, where warranted, seek further information from relevant staff as well as from affected sites.

Why the concern at ad hoc ranking adjustments? Manual modifications are a particularly clear area for abuse — a natural way for Google to penalize a competitor or critic. Discourage such penalties by increasing their complexity and difficulty for Google, and Google’s use of such penalties would decrease.

I credit that Google would respond to the proposed disclosure requirement by reducing the frequency of manual adjustments. But that’s exactly the point: Results that do not flow from an algorithmic rule of general applicability are, by hypothesis, ad hoc. Where Google elects to use such methods, its market power demands outside review.

Grimmelmann argues that these ad hoc result adjustments are a “distraction.” But if Google’s manual adjustments ultimately prove to be nothing more than penalties to spammers, then regulators will naturally turn their attention elsewhere. Meanwhile, by forcing Google to impose penalties through general algorithms rather than quick manual adjustments, Google will face increased burdens in establishing such penalties — more code required and, crucially, greater likelihood of an email or meeting agenda revealing Google’s genuine intent.

Experience from Browser Choice: Swapping “Integrated” Components

Many complaints about search bias arise when longstanding innovative services are, or appear to be at risk of becoming, subsumed into Google’s own offerings. No ordinary algorithmic link to Mapquest can compete with an oversized multicolor miniature Google Maps display appearing inline within search results. (And, as Consumer Watchdog documented, Mapquest’s traffic dropped sharply when Google deployed inline maps.)

On one hand it is troubling to see established firms disappear in the face of a seemingly-insurmountable Google advantage. The concern is all the greater when Google’s advantage comes not from intrinsic product quality but from bundling and defaults. After all, if Google can use search to push users to its Maps product, Maps will gain market share even if competitors’ services are, on their merits, superior.

Yet it would be untenable to ask Google to disavow new businesses. It is hard to imagine a modern search engine without maps, news, or local search (among other functions largely absent from core search a decade ago). If legal intervention prevented Google from entering these fields, users might lose the useful functions that stem from integration between seemingly-disparate services.

What remedy could offer a fair chance of multiple surviving vendors (with attendant benefits to consumers), while still letting Google offer new vertical search services when it so chooses? E.C. antitrust litigation against Microsoft is squarely on point, requiring Microsoft to display a large choice screen that prompts users to pick a web browser. An initial listing presents the five market-leading options, while seven more are available if a user scrolls. But there is no default; a user must affirmatively choose one of the various options.

Taking the “browser choice” concept to search results, each vertical search service could, in principle, come from a different vendor. If a user prefers that her Google algorithmic search present embedded maps from Mapquest along with local search from Yelp and video search from Hulu, the user could configure browser preferences accordingly. Furthermore, a user could make such choices on a just-in-time basis. (A possible prompt: “We noticed you’re looking for a map, and there are five vendors to choose from. Please choose a logo below.”) Later, an unobtrusive drop-down could allow adjustments. The technical barriers are reasonable: External objects could be integrated through client-side JavaScript — just as so many sites already embed AdSense ads, YouTube player, and other widgets. Or Google and contributors might prefer server-to-server communications of the sort Google uses in its partnerships with AOL and with Yahoo Japan. Either way, technology need not stand in the way.

I credit that many users may be content with most Google services. For example, Google Maps enjoyed instant success through its early offering of draggable maps. But in some areas, Google’s offerings have little traction. Google’s Places service aspires to assess quality of restaurants and local businesses — but Yelp and Angie’s List draw on specialized algorithms, deeper data, and longstanding expertise. So too for TripAdvisor as to hotel reviews, and myriad other sites in their respective sectors. A user might well prefer to get information in these areas from the respective specialized services, not from Google, were the user able to make that choice.

Google often argues that competition is one click away. But here too, the E.C.’s Microsoft litigation is on point. Users had ample ability to install other browsers if they so chose, but that general capability was not enough when the standard operating system made one choice a default. Furthermore, at least Windows let other browsers truly immerse themselves in the operating system — as the default viewer for .HTML files, the default application for hyperlinks in email messages, and so forth. But there is currently no analogue on Google — no way for a user, even one who seeks this function, to combine Google algorithmic search with a competitor’s maps, local results, or other specialized search services.

Banning Other Bad Behaviors: Tying

Using its market power over search, Google sometimes pushes sites to adopt technologies or services Google chooses. Sometimes, Google’s favored implementations may be competitively neutral — simply technical standards Google wants sites to adopt (for example, presenting an index of pages to Google’s crawlers in a particular format). But in other instances, Google uses its power in search to promote adoption of Google’s own services.

I first flagged this tactic as to Google Affiliate Network (GAN), Google’s affiliate marketing service. GAN competes in one of the few areas of Internet advertising where Google is not dominant, and to date Google has struggled to gain traction in this area. However, Google offers remarkable benefits to advertisers who agree to use GAN: GAN advertisers alone enjoy images in their AdWords advertisements on; their advertisements always appear in the top-right corner above all other right-side advertisements (never further down the page); they receive preferred payment terms (paying only if a user makes a purchase, not merely if a user clicks; paying nothing if a user returns merchandise, a credit card is declined, or a server malfunctions). Moreover, merchants tend to use only a single affiliate network; coordinating multiple networks entails additional complexity and risks paying duplicate commissions on a single purchase. So if Google can convince advertisers to use GAN, advertisers may well abandon competing affiliate platforms.

Google’s tying strategy portends a future where Google can force advertisers and sites to use almost any service Google envisions. Google could condition a top AdWords position not just on a high bid and a relevant listing, but on an advertiser agreeing to use Google Offers or Google Checkout. (Indeed, Checkout advertisers who also used AdWords initially received dramatic discounts on the bundle, and to this day Checkout advertisers enjoy a dramatic multicolor logo adjacent to their AdWords advertisements, a benefit unavailable to any other class of advertiser.) Google would get a major leg up in mobilizing whatever new services it envisions, but Google’s advantage would come at the expense of genuine innovation and competition.