Consumers can take airlines to small claims court over lost-luggage issues and other small financial disputes. But if you believe your airline failed to provide the service you paid for or damaged you in some way, you have to go to federal court. That’s difficult and expensive for individuals to do.
Carriers are supposed to provide accommodations when they leave passengers stranded because of their own problems, such as maintenance issues (but not because of weather or anything the airline considers out of its control). Airlines also have to compensate customers when they bump ticketed passengers from an overbooked flight.
DOT’s new rules, championed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, will impose new limits on airline behavior in an effort to protect passengers. For example, airlines will have to let passengers off planes that sit for more than three hours unless pilots and air traffic controllers determine it’s unsafe to get people off or let the flight return to a gate.
The Air Transport Association, a lobbying group that represents U.S. carriers, says airlines will comply with the regulation but believe it will increase flight cancellations and disruption for travelers.
The new rules, which go into effect April 29, will also let DOT penalize airlines for chronically late flights—any flight that is more than 30 minutes late on at least half its trips each month for four consecutive months. The regulations also require that airlines acknowledge customer complaints within 30 days and address the issues within 60 days.
What the Airlines Owe You
Your Rights: If an airline changes its schedule and the new flight it offers isn’t acceptable, your only recourse is to get a full refund and try to buy a ticket on another airline. The airline doesn’t have to book you on a competing carrier.
Your Rights: If your flight gets canceled because of an airline problem (not weather), the airline has to provide accommodations if you are away from home. Airlines don’t have to rebook you on a competing airline—just on their next flight with available seats.
Your Rights: There is no compensation for long delays on domestic flights, even if the delay causes hardship like missing a connection or important event. The European Union requires compensation to passengers for long delays in some cases. Beginning April 29, U.S. airlines must provide food and water if a flight sits on the tarmac for more than two hours.
Your Rights: Airlines must cover temporary expenses if your luggage doesn’t show up on your flight. If your bag never turns up, you have to file a claim, with receipts if possible. The airline determines the value of your belongings. Airline liability is capped by U.S. law at $3,300 per passenger, and about $1,500 per passenger by international treaty, unless you declare excess value ahead of time.
Your Rights: There is no requirement that airlines refund or change tickets. Even a doctor’s note typically won’t exempt you from airline change fees or cancellation penalties. You may be able to wrangle some goodwill from carriers, however, especially if you have elite frequent-flier status.
Bumped From Flight
Your Rights: If you are involuntarily denied boarding and can’t get to where you are going on another flight arriving within one hour of your scheduled arrival time, airlines must provide you compensation plus transportation to your destination. The airline may want to give you a voucher for future flights, but you can demand cash. If you won’t arrive at your destination more than two hours later than your original schedule for domestic flights (four hours for international), the airline must pay you double your fare for that flight (one-way) up to an $800 maximum.
Airlines will also be required to publish delay data about flights on their Web sites. (The airline industry, however, has asked for a delay in imposing the delay information requirement because several airlines are having Web site technology problems.)
The DOT is also planning to develop even more rules to enhance passenger protections. The agency announced that it is studying several areas including how airlines notify passengers of flight-status changes, provide alternative transportation for passengers on canceled flights and disclose baggage fees.
The DOT plans to put proposals out for public comment by June 1.
“If we thought they (customer protections) were adequate, we wouldn’t be pursuing rule-making and increased enforcement activity. We’re afraid they may not be adequate,” said Samuel Podberesky, DOT’s assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement and proceedings.
Airlines, however, say consumer protections are “pretty robust” and stronger than in other industries, said John Meenan, executive vice president of ATA. “The regulatory regime in the airline industry is, I think, quite effective and under constant review and attention from the government,” he said. The threat of hefty fines by DOT affords consumers lots of protections, but if the government proposes more protections, the industry would review and respond when that happens, Mr. Meenan said.
When the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, ticket prices fell, but so did many consumer protections. Deregulators figured that competition among airlines would force them to take care of their customers.
Take the old “Rule 240,” for example. When a flight was canceled or a traveler missed a connection because of an airline problem (not weather-related), Rule 240, known for the section of federal regulations from which it came, required that airlines put passengers on the next flight out or, if that wasn’t acceptable to the traveler, a flight on another airline. But Rule 240 was eliminated years ago with deregulation—airlines no longer have that obligation.
Now, airlines write their own rules in their “contracts of carriage.” American says only that customers will be “rerouted on our next flight with available seats.” JetBlue says it will get you on another JetBlue flight or provide a refund. Delta says “at our sole discretion, we may arrange for your travel on another carrier.”
Some consumer advocates would like to see some protections restored, such as requiring airlines to put passengers on other airlines when they have breakdowns, as well as a simpler way for passengers to resolve disputes with airlines, like access to state courts on consumer issues or some form of arbitration.
Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, notes that even the new rules against tarmac stranding don’t offer any avenue for consumers to pursue claims against airlines.
“You have to have a practical way of resolving these things without making a federal case out of it,” Mr. Hudson said. “The reality is if the airline doesn’t want to pay you, or even give you a coupon or an apology, there’s no practical recourse.”
That’s how Kenneth Beer felt when JetBlue told him and other customers that their Feb. 18 flight from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to Cancun was delayed by mechanical issues and might not fly at all because the aircraft, once repaired, might be used instead for a New York-bound flight. Passengers got so hostile that four sheriff’s deputies showed up to calm the crowd. (The flight finally left three hours late.)
Associated PressNew DOT rules will require airlines to provide food and water to passengers if a flight sits on a tarmac for more than two hours.
“You have absolutely no rights” when flying, said Dr. Beer, a dermatologist who was traveling with his wife to a weekend medical conference.
He faced hassles during his return, as well. After, JetBlue announced his flight home would be at least seven hours late and might not fly at all, Dr. Beer, who had 45 patients scheduled the next day, paid $1,400 to get seats on an American Airlines flight to Miami.
“Any other consumer interaction—if you did what these people did, you’d be fired,” he said. “I would have liked a little bit of honesty on either leg of the flight and a good-faith effort to accommodate people.”
He’s asked JetBlue to cover his plane tickets on American and reimburse him $100 for the car ride from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale, but a spokesman for the airline says JetBlue’s policy is not to rebook customers on other airlines. JetBlue does offer vouchers towards discounts on future trips for passengers suffering long delays, the spokesman said.
The airline apologized in an email to Dr. Beer this week and thanked him for comments “helpful in improving our performance.”
Write to Scott McCartney at email@example.com