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Air Travel & Consumers

By - Tim Rosado

Expenses of Stranded Airline Passengers

The Department of Transportation announced (May 8) that it plans to start a process for a rule, without issuing an actual proposed rule, that will require airlines to cover certain expenses for certain passengers if left stranded by an airline-caused cancellation or delay.

The future rule will focus on meals, hotels, and rebooking expenses when an airline has caused a cancellation or significant delay in the flight, as well as potentially compensation requirements (e.g., miles, credits, vouchers). In issuing the proposed rule, the Department says it will provide a proposed definition on the specifics for cancellation or delays caused by airlines, presumably versus other causes (e.g. weather, air traffic management, etc.).

The Department did not specify when a proposed rule will be issued, and any rulemaking process once a proposal is published could take some time to adjudicate before being implemented in a final form. That means any new rules will certainly not be implemented over the usually busy summer travel season.

DOT issued proposed rules on airline ticket refunds in August 2022 and on airline fees disclosure in September 2022. Neither rule has been finalized and implemented.

Airline Fees and & Family Seating

Some airlines have begun taking actions to address family seating concerns. United Airlines (UA) announced (February 20) a plan that “makes it easier” for families to sit together on its flights with respect to children 12 and under sitting next to an adult family member, though potentially this could be with an added cost.

UA said this is being accomplished primarily through software upgrades to its booking systems that offer adjacent seats if available at booking. Importantly, for customers with Basic Economy tickets where an adjacent seat was chosen during a booking and that seat is no longer available prior to travel, UA says that customers will have the opportunity to switch flights without an additional cost.

Soon after the UA announcement, Frontier Airlines, American Airlines, and Alaska Airlines all announced their own measures to ensure child seating with a responsible adult, but with no additional charge. 

The US Department of Transportation publishes a regularly-updated dashboard identifying airlines who do, and do not, guarantee adjacent seats for children 13 or under and an accompanying adult at no additional cost for all fare types.

President Biden has previously called out “junk fees” by airlines, among other entities, including in his 2023 State of the Union Address where he specifically highlighted airlines charging special fees for customers to sit together.

The Department of Transportation had encouraged airlines to address policies on this matter in the summer of 2022, but there currently is no mandated requirement in regulation or law.

Airline Ticket Refunds Proposed Rule

DOT announced a proposed rule (August 2022) seeking to strengthen consumer protections for persons seeking refunds for flights canceled by an airline. While current rules generally require ticket refunds for cancellations and significant schedule changes (i.e., in lieu of an offer of a flight alternative that is acceptable to a consumer), the Department believes that inadequate definitions in current rules results in inconsistent application by airlines of refund requirements.

The proposed rule proposes to codify in regulations that a failure to provide refunds when a carrier cancels or significantly changes a flight to, from, or within the United States is an unfair practice. “Significant changes” under the proposal will include:

  • changes that affect the departure and/or arrival times by three hours or more for a domestic flight or six hours or more for an international flight;

  • changes to the departure or arrival airport;

  • changes that increase the number of connections in the itinerary; and,

  • changes to the type of aircraft flown if it causes a significant downgrade in the air travel experience or amenities available onboard the flight.

A “canceled flight” would mean a flight that was published in a carrier’s Computer Reservation System at the time of the ticket sale but was not operated by the carrier.

The proposal also requires airlines and ticket agents to provide flight credits or vouchers, valid indefinitely, when passengers are unable to fly for certain pandemic related reasons, such as government-mandated bans on travel, closed borders, or passengers advised not to travel to protect their health or the health of other passengers. For those airlines and ticket agents receiving significant government assistance related to a pandemic, they would specifically be required to issue refunds.

The comment period for the proposal was extended through late November, 2022, and a final rule has so far not been issued.

Airline Fees Disclosure Proposed Rule

The Department of Transportation announced (September 2022) a proposed rule intended to strengthen airline disclosure of fee information so that consumers better understand the value they are getting on ticket purchase decisions.

Under the proposal, airlines and travel search websites will have to disclose upfront before a ticket purchase, the fees that are charged to sit with your child, for changing or canceling a flight, and for checked or carry-on baggage. The rule will apply only to flights to, or within, the United States.

In addition, the proposal requires airlines and ticket agents to enable consumers traveling with young children to purchase adjacent seats with their airline tickets at all points of sale. Airlines that do not charge a fee for adjacent seating to those traveling with a young child would not be required to disclose or make transactable adjacent seating fees. Once the proposed rule is finalized, airlines would generally have six months to implement new fee disclosure rules, ticket agents perhaps longer (air carriers would need to work in “good faith” with ticket agents) to fully implement the requirements.

It is presently unclear when the the rule will be finalized including if/how the provisions might change.

Current Passenger Rights

Airline delays and cancellations can be hugely stressful for travellers, and have the potential to disrupt or ruin vacations and other important events. The causes can be tied to any number of factors such as weather, mechanical issues, and air traffic considerations of the FAA. But especially in the recent past, many systemic delays and cancellations have been due to shortages of airline staff, especially pilots, as well as other on-board and off-board crew, and also technical issues connected to airline I.T. systems.

Airline consumers should understand that they do have Federal policy-based rights when it comes to flight cancellations and other flight disruptions. Here are six of the key policy matters air travelers should know when traveling with airlines:

  1. Canceled Flight Compensation. Domestic airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled (they may choose to do so voluntarily). Compensation is required by law on domestic trips only when you are involuntarily "bumped" from a flight that is oversold.

  2. Involuntary Bumping Compensation. DOT requires each airline to give all passengers who are bumped from a flight involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. Compensation can be negotiated, but the general requirement is that an airline must pay you, at a minimum, an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, or $775, whichever amount is lower. More information can be found here.

  3. Flight Refunds. Airlines and ticket agents (e.g., online third-party sellers) are required to make prompt refunds for canceled flights and some flight schedule changes. "Prompt” for an airline is defined as being within 7 business days if a passenger paid by credit card, and within 20 days if a passenger paid by cash or check. For ticket agents (e.g., online third-party sellers), "prompt" is not currently defined in rules. Ultimately, refund rules are not entirely straightforward and if airlines and/or ticket agents do not want to issue a cash refund if requested, there are situations where they can get out of doing so. More detailed information on current refunds policy can be found here.

  4. Tarmac Delays. DOT rules prohibit most U.S. airlines from allowing a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless the pilot determines that there is a safety or security reason why the aircraft cannot taxi to the gate and deplane its passengers; or, air traffic control advises the pilot that taxiing to the gate (or to another location where passengers can be deplaned) would significantly disrupt airport operations.

  5. Food-Water-Sanitation. Both domestic and international flights, U.S. airlines must provide passengers with food and water no later than two hours after any tarmac delay begins. While the aircraft remains on the tarmac, lavatories must remain operable and medical attention must be available if needed.

  6. Luggage. A passenger whose luggage is delayed, damaged, or lost may be eligible for compensation from an airline, but an airline can decide to limit the compensation it provides. Information on baggage rules including Federal liability limits for domestic airlines and those negotiated for international flights can be found here.


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