Transportation Department to examine consumer privacy issues with big airlines

Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced that the privacy review “is the beginning of a new initiative by DOT to ensure airlines are being good stewards of sensitive passenger data.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg holds a news conference about summer air travel at the department's headquarters on May 23, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced Thursday that the agency is launching a privacy review of the country’s top airlines. 

Airlines can access several forms of personal information about passengers, including through apps, online purchases, software used by flight attendants, and, increasingly, biometric screening systems. While the Department of Transportation isn’t typically associated with investigations into digital rights violations, the agency says it has the authority to impose civil penalties involving unfair and deceptive practices involving passenger information.

The agency also has some enforcement jurisdiction under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act pertaining  to airlines, as well as some responsibilities — shared with the Federal Trade Commission — in regard to ticketing agents. 

“Airline passengers should have confidence that their personal information is not being shared improperly with third parties or mishandled by employees,” Buttigieg in a statement. “This review of airline practices is the beginning of a new initiative by DOT to ensure airlines are being good stewards of sensitive passenger data. DOT is grateful for the expertise and partnership of [Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.] as we undertake this effort to protect passengers.”   


The privacy review comes amid collaboration with Wyden’s office and is supposed to be the first of many. This round will apply to Allegiant, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United, which have already received letters from the agency. The investigation will be led by the agency’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection and cover personal information policies, privacy training within the airlines and complaints about airline privacy violations. 

Last year, that same office announced in a notice that it would begin to seek higher penalties on “airlines and ticket agents for violations of consumer protection, civil rights and economic licensing requirements.”

Rebecca Heilweil

Written by Rebecca Heilweil

Rebecca Heilweil is an investigative reporter for FedScoop. She writes about the intersection of government, tech policy, and emerging technologies. Previously she was a reporter at Vox's tech site, Recode. She’s also written for Slate, Wired, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. You can reach her at Message her if you’d like to chat on Signal.

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