TRANSPORTATION -- April 20, 2011 at 5:20 PM ET
New 'Passenger Bill of Rights' Limits Tarmac Time, Reimburses Lost Bags
Passengers wait in check-in lines (Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Wednesday a bulked-up version of the "Passenger Bill of Rights" for consumers traveling by air.
The new set of protections is built on the first version that came out in 2009 and on flyers' concerns since then. Last winter, a blizzard left thousands of passengers stranded on the tarmac at JFK International Airport in New York, some for up to 10 hours, prompting the Department of Transportation to bar domestic flights from lengthy delays on the tarmac.
DOT's new rules extend last year's decision to restrict tarmac delays to include up to four hours for international flights. In April 2010, the DOT issued a new rule allowing passengers to deplane and return to the gate in the event of a three hour or more delay, which has since eliminated nearly all major tarmac delays for domestic flights. Under the revised conditions, this rule also will apply to international flights delayed four or more hours. During a delay, airlines also will be required to provide water, food, and medical and bathroom access.
Other highlights of the changes, which take effect in August:
Lost Bag Refund: A refund for all lost, checked baggage. Many airlines now charge $25 per checked bag. Currently, passengers can claim items lost, but they still end up paying for the fee. The refund applies only to luggage lost, not delayed. According to USA Today, airlines collect more than $3 million in bag fees each year.
No Hidden Fees: In an effort to promote full transparency for the airline industry's complex bundling system, the new rules will make it mandatory for airlines to disclose all hidden fees at any point during a traveler's purchasing process, whether online or at the ticket counter. These include fees for taxes, cancelations, changes, meals, baggage and even upgrades. It is not specified how these fees will be displayed.
Bumping Compensation: Under the new guidelines, passengers are eligible for compensation from $650 to $1,300 if they are involuntarily bumped from their flight, almost twice the amount awarded under current rules. For "short delays," passengers are entitled to up to twice the purchase amount of their ticket, or $650. For longer delays, they can receive up to four times their ticket price, or $1,300.
Grace Period: New changes also allow passengers more flexibility when booking flights. Passengers now have a 24-hour grace period to make changes to their itinerary without accruing cancelation fees.
Notification of Flight Changes: Airlines are now required to inform passengers of delays and bumps either at the gate, via cell phone, or online for domestic flights. This gives passengers the option not to board a delayed flight and arrange other means of arriving at their destination.
"Airline passengers have a right to be treated fairly," said LaHood in a statement. "It's just common sense that if an airline loses your bag or you get bumped from a flight because it was oversold, you should be reimbursed. The additional passenger protections we're announcing today will help make sure air travelers are treated with the respect they deserve."
For consumer rights groups, the changes are a step in the right direction. "I think more passengers will fly and just in hearing these protections, they will be encouraged to fly more," said Kate Hanni, the president and founder of FlyersRights.org. "The flying experience has become untenable for people," she said of airlines and the lengthy security process. "People love to travel; they just hate the getting there. Now that the government is stepping in, it's more encouraging."
The airline industry has said many of the changes already are in practice. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Air Transport Association said, "The airlines had already made many service improvements and many of the regulations merely formalize procedures that were already in place.
"ATA members are committed to continually improving customer service and continue to believe that market forces, not added government regulation -- are a better approach to improving the customer experience."