Feds put in place more airline passenger protections

Air travelers will have a few more protections when things go awry as the government expands the list of federal passenger protections.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday released a bevy of new rules -- some new, some broadening existing regulations. Among them are moves to expand the ban on long tarmac delays to international flights and require a refund of checked baggage fees if the luggage is permanently lost.

Some measures apply to how travelers shop. Airlines will be required to include all taxes and fees with advertised prices and allow customers to cancel an advance reservation within 24 hours of making it without penalty.

The rules also boost compensation to fliers who are involuntarily ‘bumped’ off overbooked flights. Most of the new regulations take effect Aug. 23.

“Airline passengers have a right to be treated fairly,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a written statement. He said the new protections “will help make sure air travelers are treated with the respect they deserve.”

The move continues a shift toward increased regulation under the Obama Administration of airlines’ dealings with passengers, as high-profile incidents raise concerns about travelers’ rights. Last year the DOT imposed a three-hour limit on tarmac delays for domestic flights, with fines for violations.

“Airlines have basically had a license to do whatever they choose to do to the consumer for so long, that at least this is a beginning,” said Jay Kulkin, a traveler who lives in the Sandy Springs area. “The airlines really have to stop taking for granted that the passengers will keep coming back.”

Airlines say they already meet many of the requirements.

Delta Air Lines said it already voluntarily limits tarmac delays to four hours on international flights, and offers baggage fee rebates in cases of severely delayed bags in the form of travel vouchers. Delta, the largest carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, also said it already lets customers cancel reservations without penalty within 24 hours of booking.

“Many of the new DOT provisions are aligned with longstanding Delta practices,” Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter said.

AirTran Airways spokesman Christopher White said AirTran is “very focused” on limiting mishandled bags and bumped passengers, “regardless of DOT regulation.”

Southwest Airlines, which will enter the Atlanta market via its pending buyout of AirTran, said it also already meets many of the requirements.

Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said some provisions, such as the requirement to include taxes and fees in advertised fares, will require changes.

“That’s something that will have an impact on Southwest and other airlines, so we’ll have to make some adjustments in the way that we advertise fares.”

The Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, said airlines “will continue to work to present a clear differentiation between the fare charged by the airlines and the government taxes and fees, which can account for roughly 20 percent of the ticket price.”

The regulations had been in the works since last June, when the DOT issued a draft proposal of this the second round of the Passenger Bill of Rights.

Airline consultant Bob Mann, of Port Washington, N.Y., said it’s difficult to estimate the cost of the regulations on airlines. He said a provision to increase required compensation for bumped travelers will cause carriers to be more careful about overbooking.

Passengers whose bags are lost already are compensated for the value of the bag and contents; the new rule adds a refund of checked-bag fees, typically $20 to $25.

One proposal that did not make the new rules: a ban on peanuts from airline flights. The idea was advanced to eliminate the risk to people with peanut allergies. The DOT last year decided not to take action on the matter.


Airlines will be required to: :

-- Refund checked baggage fees if baggage is lost.

-- Disclose all potential fees on their websites, refer passengers to up-to-date baggage fee information and include all government taxes and fees in every advertised price.

-- Increase compensation caps for involuntarily bumped passengers to $650 or $1,300, depending on the length of the delay and price of ticket. That’s up from $400 or $800.

-- Expand the ban on long tarmac delays to cover foreign carriers at U.S. airports and limit tarmac delays on all airlines’ international flights to four hours. Fines apply to violations, although longer delays are allowed under certain conditions.

-- Give travelers 24 hours to cancel a reservation without penalty, if the reservation is made a week or more prior to departure.