The DOT Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings has issued guidance on how “no available flights” Internet search results must be displayed on ticket agent websites.* The Enforcement Office is concerned that consumers are being misled when using online flight search tools to find and compare carrier flights. Many agents do not include every carrier that offers a particular flight in their flight-search tools. When this happens, the user typically receives a message that there are no available flights, even though other carriers not included in the search tool may offer that specific flight.
The Enforcement Office finds this approach deceptive and unfair to consumers who it believes won’t understand that there are carriers beyond those marketed by the agent (meaning appearing on its website) that offer the flight. Problematic messages include “no flights are available,” “no nonstop flights are available,” “no flights match your search criteria,” and “no results were found.” The Enforcement Office has decided that these types of messages can only be used “when no airline—including those not covered by the online search—offers a flight matching a consumer’s criteria.”
What does DOT view as acceptable? The site’s message must clearly state that the search tool is only displaying results from airlines marketed by the agent, so that a “no matching flights” result does not mean that no other carrier offers the flight. Examples include:
- “No flights are available from airlines covered by this website.”
- “No flights offered by airlines included on our website match your search criteria.”
- “A search of the airlines listed on this website [include hyperlink to list of airlines covered] yielded no results.”
This is as far as the agent must go—its message need not refer consumers to carriers outside the agent’s website who do offer the requested flight.
The Enforcement Office has given ticket agents 90 days from the Notice’s August 19 date of issue to comply with this guidance. It will then begin enforcement actions under 42 U.S.C. Section 4172. Ticket agents should take this notice quite seriously. The Enforcement Office has been vigilant in monitoring air transport industry websites and is imposing much higher penalties than in prior years.
*A “ticket agent” is a person (but not a domestic or foreign air carrier or their employees) that acts as a principal or agent in selling, providing or arranging for air transportation, or offering or negotiating such transport, or even holding itself out to the public as performing any of these acts. (49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(45)).