Five months ago, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser put one of the state’s most recognizable companies on blast.
In a letter to then U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao on Sept. 1, Weiser urged an investigation into Frontier Airlines‘ flight change policies and customer service practices during the COVID-19 pandemic and pushed for fines if misconduct was confirmed.
Weiser said his office had received more than 100 complaints about Frontier from people in 30 states, including Colorado, since the COVID-19 pandemic began upending American life and shredding flight schedules in March. Flash forward to late January. Pete Buttigieg is poised to be the country’s next transportation secretary and Weiser’s office has received more than 600 complaints about Frontier from people in 40 states.
“When you look at all the complaints we got during COVID-19 related to misconduct by companies, the single biggest number of complaints or any company was for Frontier Airlines,” Weiser told The Denver Post.
Concerned about inaction from the U.S. Department of Transportation to this point, Weiser is also leading a bipartisan effort to lobby Congress to grant more power to state offices like his to crack down on airlines that take advantage of consumers. That and other consumer protection recommendations are laid out in a letter signed by Weiser and 39 other state attorneys general and sent to Congressional leaders in October.
“We think, given the importance of this sector and the impact on consumers, we need more oversight,” he said.
It’s too early to know if reforms are coming. From a consumer standpoint, the unprecedented impact COVID-19 has had on air travel in Colorado and across the U.S. is pushing people to be more aware of their rights as flyers, to be more judicious about how they protect themselves from unexpected changes to their travel plans and driving decisions about which airlines deserve loyalty and which carriers should be avoided altogether.
“I previously traveled a ton for other work. I flew Frontier exclusively back then,” said Amanda King, a communications professional who lives in Fort Collins. She said Frontier’s policy of not providing refunds to flyers who canceled flights during the pandemic cost her family nearly $800 last spring.
“This was just kind of the nail in a coffin for me,” King said. “I won’t fly with them.”
Frontier, for its part, has stuck to the position it took in September when Weiser called for the feds to investigate that airline. The company has acted in good faith to treat passengers compassionately and fairly during the pandemic, it has remained in compliance with federal regulations and disputes any claims to the contrary, spokeswoman Jennifer de le Cruz reiterated in an email.
The company’s contract of carriage — the guiding document managing the relationship between the airline and its passengers, last updated in October — says that if a passenger cancels a ticket before a flight departs they will retain the value of the ticket, minus a service fee, as an electronic credit that can be used to book another seat on another flight over the ensuing 90 days.
A Frontier Airlines jetliner taxis to a runway for take off from Denver International Airport Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
But Frontier has made its policies more flexible and forgiving during the pandemic, according to de la Cruz. That included steps like waiving cancelation and change fees for all flights booked through Feb. 28.
“While credits for future travel originally required that travelers rebook within 90 days … we have since modified that policy and credits issued are now valid to use to book travel for up to one year,” de la Cruz said in an email, emphasizing that booking doesn’t mean that the flight has to be taken in the window, just that the ticket holder has to reserve a seat in that timeframe. “Additionally, we have modified our policies to allow for use of travel credits on multiple flights.”
Both of those changes came too late to help Seth McLean last summer.
The Wheat Ridge resident was planning to visit his native New York in late June with his wife and their three kids. But then an amateur baseball tournament he was going to play in was canceled so McLean decided to play it safe with the virus and give up the trip.
He tried calling Frontier Airlines to cancel the family’s tickets from Denver International Airport to Newark, New Jersey, but couldn’t reach anyone.
“Their lines were overwhelmed,” McLean said. “The night before the flight left I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to drive 45 minutes to the airport just to talk to someone.’ Finally, I called the airport and had them connect me to a Frontier rep.”
The woman he spoke with informed McLean of changes to his itinerary he said he was never contacted about. The family’s direct flight to Newark had been turned into a connecting flight with a layover. And their original return flight had been canceled entirely, setting the family up to be stranded. After explaining to airline representatives that he was not interested in rescheduling and wanted a refund, she finally offered him a credit for the full $286.72 price of the five tickets.
“She reassured me it was as good as cash. No blackout dates. No fees. And the credit can be used until it was gone,” he said.
The only catch, he was told, was that he needed to rebook within 90 days.
In August a family member died, and the McLeans again planned a trip to New York. They used their Frontier credit to buy their tickets, which, thanks to some deep discount the airline was offering, cost a total of $87.92, leaving $198.80 that McLean believed he could still tap into. When he returned from the funeral and tried to book another flight, he found that the credit was gone.
McLean had already been emailing a Frontier customer services specialist about a $100 voucher that he never received after joining the airline’s loyalty program in March. The frequency of back and forth emails escalated in the fall and winter but by December, it was clear to McLean he was getting nowhere on his $198.80. He filed a consumer complaint with Weiser’s office.
“It was just horrible communication and zero follow through,” McLean said. “Really, they stole my money. And I’m not the only one. Two hundred dollars is a decent amount of money to me.”
In King’s case, she, her husband and the younger of their two daughters were scheduled to fly to Portland, Oregon, in mid-March to visit a college campus. The campus and much of the city were shut down so they contacted Frontier to cancel. They, too, were told they had 90 days to rebook.
After waiting to see how things would play out in the pandemic, King and her husband called Frontier customer service the night before the 90 days was up in hopes of exploring options, hopefully even a refund.
“They just were not going to budge,” King said.
When her husband brought up that a taxpayer bailout was helping keep the airline afloat, that was the end of the conversation. “They hung up,” she said.
The family also canceled a trip to New York City in May out of concern for the virus. But that trip was on Southwest Airlines, which was much more accommodating, King said. The family has since used the $1,000 credit from that cancellation for a handful of trips, including King and her husband flying back home after moving one of their daughters to California and the other to Nebraska. They still have some money left over.
“They were very kind and compassionate,” King said of Southwest.
Southwest allows travelers to cancel up to 10 minutes before takeoff and convert their ticket into a credit that can be used one year from the date of original purchase, spokesman Dan Landson said in an email. For flights scheduled between March 1 and Sept. 7 last year, that window was extended to two years and customers had the option to covert the credit into rewards points that could be stockpiled for future bookings.
United Airlines, the biggest carrier doing business in Colorado, has an online refund form customers can fill out to see if they are eligible for a credit or refund after canceling travel plans. Basic economy tickets are not eligible for refunds, airline spokeswoman Annabelle Cottee said.
During the pandemic, United adopted a longstanding Southwest policy and permanently did away with change fees to be more consumer-friendly, Cottee said.
Beyond being called out by Weiser, Frontier is also the subject of a class action lawsuit over its practices during the pandemic. Attorneys with the law firm Berger Montague filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Colorado on June 15 on behalf of passengers who had their flights canceled by the airline but did not receive refunds.
Frontier is not the only airline that aggravated consumers during the COVID crisis.
Katie Huxford is a retiree from Longmont who spends her winters in the Phoenix area. She was scheduled to take an American Airlines flight from Phoenix to the Bahamas last March.
On Feb. 18, before the World Health Organization had officially declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, Huxford decided to cancel the trip. Her hotel gave her a full refund but American said her ticket was non-refundable regardless of the circumstances.
“I do have a little bit of sympathy,” Huxford said, acknowledging that airlines have been fighting to avoid going bankrupt during the crisis. “I wish they had been more in tune with what was going on globally and been willing to accommodate. I would like to avoid flying with again them if at all possible.”
The experience also provided Huxford with a lesson in travel insurance. She had purchased a basic policy before her trip but found out that it did not cover a pandemic. In the future, she’ll be springing for more comprehensive coverage.
“If you ever want to buy trip insurance, buy ‘Cancel For Any Reason’ insurance,” Huxford said.
Consumer education was a big part of Scott Keyes’ focus in the early days of the pandemic and still is.
The founder and chief flight expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights, a company that flags the best deals at local airports for millions of paying subscribers, said that if an airline cancels a flight or makes a significant schedule change that impacts flight, the airline is obligated under federal law to provide customers with a full refund if they request it.
On problem is that the government gives airlines leeway to define what qualifies as “significant.”
“It’s one of those things I wish they would spell out,” Keyes said. “An hour or two hours, in general, is the threshold for airlines. Just two hours is a good rule of thumb. If it’s is longer than that you can demand a cash refund if you want one.”
Keyes and his team spread this information through the company Twitter account and a newsletter to members, finding that airlines were less than forthcoming about these rules early on. The government twice issued guidance to airlines during the pandemic that they must follow this rule, Keyes said. Of course, if the passengers chose to cancel before an airline changed or canceled their flight, they were beholden to airline policies.
Despite his anger at the way the airline handled his June cancellation, McLean and his family — now a party of six after his wife gave birth to their fourth child in November — have another flight booked with Frontier in October. Again, he purchased tickets for another purpose, a professional conference that was scheduled for next month but has since been canceled. This time when he called Frontier to rebook, the customer service agent stayed on the line with him until he received a confirmation email and verification that he had been granted some extra vouchers for his patronage.
Booking on Frontier again comes down to price and limited options, McLean said.
“I don’t really have a choice,” McLean said. “For my income bracket, it’s either Frontier or Spirit (Airlines), and I’ve flown Spirit. I’m not doing that again.”