2023 Management Excellence

Blane Workie, Robert Gorman, Jessica Ilich and the Aviation Consumer Protection Team

Led an aggressive campaign to ensure airlines refund travelers for canceled or significantly delayed flights and require coverage of other related costs when circumstances are within the airline’s control, and held airlines accountable with a record $8.35 million in fines and more than $1 billion in passenger refunds.

When airline passengers experienced significant delays and cancellations during the past several years, they often received the cold shoulder from carriers that refused to provide refunds to stranded travelers or reimbursements for hotel rooms and other expenses. 

The Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection, led by Blane Workie and team members Robert Gorman and Jessica Ilich, intervened by using a combination of public pressure, enforcement actions, negotiations and rulemaking to protect the traveling public when the airlines were at fault. 

Thanks to these efforts, the office assessed a single-year record of $8.35 million in civil penalties against airlines, online travel agents and other entities in 2022. As a result, hundreds of thousands of travelers received more than $1 billion in refunds. 

“Less than a year ago, none of the 10 largest airlines even guaranteed that they would cover the cost of a significant delay or cancellation that was their fault,” said DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Blane Workie and her team demonstrated initiative, innovation and commitment in responding to air traveler needs by expanding passenger rights and improving passenger outcomes.” 

Consumer complaints centering mostly on a lack of refunds for cancellations soared to a record 100,000 in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, up from 15,000 a year earlier. These complaints remained high in 2021 and 2022, a year highlighted by Southwest Airlines canceling thousands of flights during the December holiday season.  

While the number of complaints represent a small part of those adversely affected and a fraction of the hundreds of millions boarding U.S. flights annually, the sheer number of travelers experiencing hardships required federal action. 

Launching investigations and taking enforcement actions 

Rather than waiting until every complaint had been examined, Workie and her staff looked for patterns to determine if an airline was repeatedly being unresponsive or noncompliant.  

In the spring of 2020, the consumer protection office quickly issued two regulatory notices underscoring that even with the upheaval caused by the pandemic, the airlines owed timely refunds if they substantially altered flight schedules.  

The office also launched investigations, brought enforcement actions and, in some instances, reached settlements for travelers to be reimbursed. 

United Airlines “changed its tune right away” about refunds and complied, Ilich said. 

Air Canada, however, resisted a settlement until the department took the rare step of filing a complaint with an administrative law judge. “That opened their eyes a little bit to the idea that we were really serious,” Gorman said.  

In late 2021, Workie’s office fined Air Canada $4.5 million and the airline refunded passengers $575 million. In November 2022, her office fined six other carriers $7.25 million for failing to provide timely refunds. Those carriers have now paid more than $600 million in refunds to customers.  

Workie oversaw the entire process while Ilich handled the consumer complaints and Gorman managed the legal activities involving Air Canada. 

Consumer dashboard sheds light on airline customer service policies 

In the summer of 2022, Workie’s office also unveiled a public online dashboard that shows which carriers are taking customer-friendly steps like rebooking significantly delayed passengers without added fees and covering unexpected food and hotel costs. Her team also pushed airlines to seat young children next to accompanying adults at no extra charge and published a “Bill of Rights” for travelers with disabilities. 

The consumer dashboard produced results by comparing the airlines, awarding green check marks for services each of the 10 largest airlines committed to providing. While none originally guaranteed they would cover lodging or meal costs for travelers affected by airline-caused cancellations or significant delays, all 10 eventually guaranteed food and nine promised hotels. 

John Putnam, the DOT general counsel, said because of these earlier commitments from the 10 airlines, Southwest Airlines compensated thousands of travelers stranded during its meltdown during the December 2022 holidays. “There was uncertainty and helplessness that would have been exacerbated by inadequate customer service if it were not for the efforts of Workie and her office,” Putnam said. 

Workie said her team had to “rethink our processes in the moment” and respond to an unfolding crisis. “I am most proud that consumers are getting and did get their money back, and that we pushed airlines to act in the best interest of consumers,” she said.