Airline passenger rights going into effect

JIM GRAHAM / Bloomberg News
JIM GRAHAM / Bloomberg News
Posted: August 12, 2011

Sweeping pro-consumer passenger-rights rules go into effect Aug. 23 that require airlines to refund baggage fees for lost checked luggage and pay more for involuntarily bumping passengers on overbooked flights.

The rules, designed to protect airline consumers from unfair and deceptive practices, extend fines to foreign carriers and international flights of U.S. airlines if passengers are stuck on the tarmac for more than four hours.

The new requirements have been praised by passenger-rights advocates but criticized by the airline industry for adding costs and challenges that could lead to higher ticket prices and more cancellations.

Two carriers - Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air joined by Southwest Airlines Co. - are challenging one or more of the provisions, including a requirement that advertised fares include all government taxes and fees.

Airlines previously could list taxes and some passenger fees separately from advertised fares, as long as they were prominently footnoted or linked.

The U.S. Department of Transportation filed a rebuttal with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington on Aug. 4, defending the full-fare advertising rule to help the public determine the true cost of air travel.

"The new rules have gone further than any such protections in the history of U.S. commercial aviation," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor.

Kate Hanni, executive director of the nonprofit passenger-rights group FlyersRights (FlyersRights.org), said the provisions cover reporting of flight delays, increased bumping compensation, international flights in the tarmac-delay rule, and fee refunds for lost bags, among other protections.

Airlines were successful in delaying until Jan. 24 implementation of some measures, such as prompt notification of flight delays and cancellations; allowing passengers to cancel a reservation without penalty within 24 hours; and publishing full fares in advertising.

Starting Aug. 23, airlines must disclose on their websites all optional or "ancillary" charges. This will be a link to a page listing all the fees, Hanni said. "It's not exactly what we had hoped for. It's not going to give you the ability to compare apples to apples amongst other carriers. We are still fighting for that."

The Transportation Department is contemplating an additional rule that would force airlines to provide their "ancillary" fee information to travel agents and online ticket-distribution systems, such as Expedia and Travelocity, so consumers can compare the fee-inclusive fares of various airlines.

Now, travel agencies and corporate travel managers cannot "transact the extra fees on a given flight because they don't have them," Mitchell said.

"You just don't know who is really higher because you don't have all this on a side-by-side basis. There are a zillion fees," he said.

The rules came about after well-publicized incidents of travelers stranded indefinitely aboard aircraft, and the proliferation of surcharges and fees since 2008 for checked bags, reservation changes, seat upgrades, pillows, and meals.

The International Air Transport Association, a trade group for 230 airlines worldwide, called the provisions "troublesome" and "a significant intrusion into the commercial marketplace. We are happy that they postponed some aspects of it for six months," spokesman Perry Flint said.

One new measure imposes fines on foreign airlines that keep passengers on tarmacs at U.S. airports for more than four hours. Last year, the Transportation Department imposed a three-hour tarmac-delay rule on domestic carriers, which the industry said has resulted in more flight cancellations to avoid the threat of fines up to $27,500 per passenger.

The tarmac rule dramatically cut tarmac delays in the first 12 months, from 693 to 20 in the full year after the rule took effect in April 2010.

But tarmac delays are creeping up again: 14 planes were stuck on the ground for more than three hours in June, and there were 16 such delays in May.

"I believe the reason is that the [Department of Transportation] has not imposed one single fine," Hanni said. "If they don't, there's no teeth in the rule, and it's useless."

The Transportation Department said most tarmac delays in the first year were not violations because they involved "exceptions" to the rule: safety or security.

In a few cases, warning letters were sent to carriers, agency spokesman Bill Mosley said. The tarmac delays in May and June are "under investigation," he said.


Taking effect Aug. 23

Refund checked baggage fees if luggage is lost.

Increase compensation for consumers involuntarily bumped from flights to double the amount of ticket price, or up to $650 for short delays, and up to four times ticket price or up to $1,300, for longer delays.

Disclose all optional or "ancillary" fees - including bag fees, reservation changes, seat upgrades, and government taxes - on carriers' websites.

Extend tarmac-delay fines to foreign airlines at U.S. airports. If tarmac delay exceeds four hours, the foreign carrier can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger. (A three-hour tarmac delay limit has applied to U.S. airlines since last year.)

Require baggage-fee changes to be posted on a carrier's website for three months.

Mandate that smaller regional airlines respond to customer problems, even if flying under the banner of a major airline.

Taking effect Jan. 24

Allow passengers to cancel reservations, without penalty or payment within 24 hours of booking if reservation is made one week before departure.

Require airlines to publish full fares, including fees and taxes, in advertising.

Notify passengers of delays and cancellations longer than 30 minutes - at boarding gate, on telephone reservation system, and airline websites.

Ban post-purchase price increases, including fuel surcharges.

Disclose baggage-fee information when booking a flight and on e-ticket confirmations.

Require that the same bag fees apply through the passenger's journey, even if connected on another carrier.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Transportation


Contact staff writer Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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