Unfriendly skies


POSTED: Sunday, December 07, 2008

  Question: I have been trying to get a refund from Paragon Air, which books air tours from Maui to Kalaupapa, for months. My husband and I were visiting Maui and booked a $609 tour for a Tuesday last December.

The director of operations called and said that tour was canceled due to mechanical problems. We rescheduled for Friday, but on Thursday he called to say it was canceled again because of bad weather on Molokai. We asked to reschedule the tour for Saturday, our last day on Maui, but he said there was no pilot available.

He said he would refund our credit card payment and even offered a free trip to Maui. When no refund showed up by March, I contacted the company but got no response.

Since then I have sent several e-mails, called several times and even sent a registered letter, but they are unresponsive to any contact.

In April I filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, which had 12 complaints against Paragon Air at that time. Since then they've gotten more than 20 complaints, but the BBB also couldn't get a response after several attempts.

It can't do anything to help. I also filed a complaint with the state Office of Consumer Protection, the Maui Chamber of Commerce and KHON's Action Line. No one has been able to help. Can you help?

  Answer: We called the number for “;the live customer care center”; listed for Paragon Air on Maui, 244-3356.

The first time, a man answered but did not identify himself or the company. He said “;no speak English”; several times when we asked, “;Is this Paragon Air,”; then hung up. The second time, a recording said a voice mailbox was not set up.

We then sent an e-mail Monday and received a reply that said, “;Thank you for your interest in our services. We will be back with you shortly.”; We have not heard back from anyone.

Small Claims Court might be an option for you. Call 538-5151 to get information or go online at

The state Office of Consumer Protection has referred 18 complaints about Paragon Air to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, Aviation Consumer Protection Division, over the past four years.

  That's basically all it can do, according to OCP Director Stephen Levins.

“;Unfortunately, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 pre-empts states from taking action even if airlines (or air tour operators) engage in unfair and deceptive practices,”; Levins said. “;The (U.S.) Supreme Court has ruled that we can't enforce state consumer protection laws when it comes to the airlines.”;

Basically, if a complaint deals with rates, routes or services, it has to be referred to the federal agency.

Levins admitted to frustration on this matter.

If consumers are being hurt by a pattern of unfair business practices, “;it's particularly frustrating for state consumer protectors if the referrals aren't acted on by the federal agency that has the authority to do something,”; he said.

To begin with, nonsafety, nonsecurity complaints aren't really investigated. They are forwarded to the target of the complaint, then compiled in a database and reported monthly.

The U.S. Transportation Department issues a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, categorizing complaints (except for those dealing with safety or security) about such things as flight delays, mishandled baggage, oversales and refunds. (See

Although complaints have been received about Paragon Air, the company is not listed separately in the report.

That's because “;we have never received the threshold of five complaints per month (or 10 complaints per year for the annual report),”; said Bill Mosley, spokesman for the Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

Paragon complaints are entered into the DOT's database, and those complaints are included in the “;other carriers”; category of the report, he said.

Since Jan. 1, 2005, the database shows nine complaints against Paragon, he said.

  What happens to complaints?

Mosley said the policy is to forward all complaints to the airline in question.

Regarding how complaints are handled, he pointed to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division Web site, specifically this paragraph:

“;All complaints are entered in DOT's computerized aviation industry monitoring system, and are charged to the company in question in the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. This report is distributed to the industry and made available to the news media and the general public so that consumers and air travel companies can compare the complaint records of individual airlines and tour operators.

  “;These complaints are reviewed to determine the extent to which carriers are in compliance with federal aviation consumer protection regulations. This system also serves as a basis for rulemaking, legislation and research. Where appropriate, letters and Web form submissions will be forwarded to an official at the airline for further consideration.”;

It boils down to “;buyer beware.”;

The Better Business Bureau of Hawaii said it has received 27 complaints against Paragon Air in the past three years, 19 involving refund issues. The company addressed only one complaint; the rest remain unanswered.

Airlines are consistently in the top 10 industries generating the most complaints with the Hawaii BBB.

“;So far this year, airlines are ranked No. 2 for the number of complaints received, with a resolution rate at 64 percent in Hawaii,”; the BBB said. That's “;significantly lower than (the) local and national complaint resolution rate for the industry in 2007 at 83 percent.”;

Consumers can check an airline's BBB Reliability Report and rating online at


Speak out

Complaints about airline service other than safety or security issues may be registered with the Aviation Consumer Protection Division:

» Make a call: 24 hours a day at (202) 366-2220 (TTY (202) 366-0511) to record your complaint. Calls are returned Monday through Friday, generally between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern time.

» Send a letter to: Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C. 20590. Include a copy (not original) of your airline ticket or itinerary, and any correspondence with the company.

» File online: At problems.htm. Be brief and concise in describing your complaint and include your name, address, daytime phone number (including area code); e-mail address; name of the airline you are complaining about; flight date; flight number, if known; origin and destination of your trip.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection Division