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Frontier Airlines' Bad Decade and Call for Federal Investigation

Frontier commercials circa 2012 used talking animals as their primary branding.
Frontier commercials circa 2012 used talking animals as their primary branding.
YouTube file photo

The past decade or so has been tough for Frontier Airlines. Once the pride of Denver, the carrier has suffered through years of terrible consumer reviews, public-relations disasters and labor strife. And now, compounding the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on travel, the firm is being used as an example of why congressional aid to the industry as a whole should be tied to customer protection — thanks partly to Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser's call for a federal investigation into Frontier's practices.

Weiser is among forty attorneys general from across the country to sign an October 1 letter to congressional leaders urging them to "enact new consumer protection measures for airline industry customers whether as part of a financial relief package or in separate legislation as soon as possible," according to Weiser's office. That missive, released by the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), makes prominent mention of Weiser's call last month for U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to "use your authority under federal law to protect consumers by ordering Frontier to stop any unfair and deceptive practices and, where appropriate, seeking civil penalties."

By Weiser's count, his office "received and reviewed more than one hundred complaints against Frontier from consumers in Colorado and 29 other states" since March, "more than about any other company during that time."

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Frontier has chronically finished at or near the bottom of airline quality reports over recent years, as documented in 2014, 2017 and 2018. This trend continued in 2019, when The Points Guy, a website devoted to helping folks maximize their travel experience, ranked the airline tenth out of a possible ten. In its 2020 ranking, Frontier improved, but only just, landing in the ninth slot, just above Spirit.

Indeed, horror stories about Frontier became so commonplace that there was once an entire website devoted to them. Meanwhile, the company spent years in negotiation with employees, including pilots who alleged that the carrier's practices could lead to a major mishap. Last year, the airline finally reached agreements with its unionized staffers, but that didn't mean all strife was eliminated, as witnessed by December 2019 lawsuits involving individuals on the Frontier payroll who were pregnant or breastfeeding.

Weiser's letter to Chao focuses on three main allegations about the airline:

1. Frontier failed to promptly refund consumers when required by law, including for flights cancelled or significantly changed or delayed by Frontier, or when a refund was promised by Frontier.

2. Frontier failed to disclose material aspects of its policy regarding flight credits and failed to provide customers a mechanism to promptly redeem credits or vouchers.

3. Frontier’s customer service system failed to provide customers with a mechanism for resolving problems within a reasonable period of time, costing consumers dozens of hours of time and often thousands of dollars’ worth of flight credits.

Like other U.S. airlines, Frontier received federal funding through the CARES Act's Payroll Support Program. But that expired last week, leading to thousands of airline-industry employees being placed on furlough.

Now Congress is looking at possibly extending the program another six months, at a cost estimated at $28 billion. But the NAAG letter encourages leaders not to make such aid the equivalent of a blank check. Instead, Weiser and the other attorneys general ask that further financial relief "be coupled with, or followed by, appropriate consumer protection measures."

They include:

• Requiring carriers that receive federal financial relief to provide full refunds to customers who voluntarily cancel their flight reservations for reasons related to COVID-19;
• Strengthening existing laws requiring that refunds for flight cancellations be remitted in full and according to federal law, and preventing delays in issuance of refunds or expirations that effectively cancel the value reimbursed; and
• Authorizing state attorneys general to enforce federal airline consumer protections, thereby broadening consumer violation enforcement beyond a single federal agency.

In a statement about the latest demand, Weiser specifically mentions Frontier:

"During the pandemic here in Colorado, we have heard hundreds of complaints from consumers who were denied ticket refunds for canceled trips or the ability to use flight vouchers, as promised by Frontier Airlines," he maintains. "To protect those consumers, we’ve asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate this behavior. Our letter simply asks airlines to treat customers fairly, especially after they benefit from billions in taxpayer-funded relief payments and loans. In the wake of the federal government providing such relief, it is only reasonable to expect that the airlines treat both their employees and consumers fairly."

We've reached out to Frontier for comment about these developments; if we receive a response, we'll update this post. Meanwhile, click to read Weiser's letter to Transportation Secretary Chao and the National Association of Attorneys General document.

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