In 2009 and 2011, the Obama administration enacted several (much needed) rules that protect passengers.
Thanks to those regulations, there are now more scenarios in which you’re allowed to cancel your ticket, airlines are required to hold reservations or provide refunds within a 24-hour window, and are also required to provide better compensation to consumers who’ve been involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight.
“For many Americans, air travel is a way of life—it’s how we keep our businesses running, explore new places, and keep in touch with the people we love.
Yet over the past eight years, I’ve received plenty of letters from Americans who’ve been frustrated by unforeseen baggage fees; folks who feel like they too often end up paying more for an airline ticket than they bargained for.” —President Obama
They also imposed a limit on tarmac sits. These new guidelines define a time limit on how long airlines can force passengers to sit on an aircraft in the event that takeoff is delayed—once the clock hits three hours on a domestic flight, or four hours on an international, the crew is forced to let you back into the terminal to stretch your legs. (Except, of course, with exceptions for safety, security and air traffic control-related reasons.)
Since being put into place, the tarmac delay rule has virtually eliminated excessive tarmac delays. Instead, airlines waiting on maintenance or a change in weather are forced to return to the gate and allow passengers to disembark.
On October 19th, Obama enacted five additional rules to help American passengers. Effective immediately, here’s how they’ll affect your next trip:
1. Prohibiting Undisclosed Bias by Airlines and Online Ticket Agents
When you shop for flights on a booking website such as Kayak, Travelocity, or Google Flights, most consumers simply assume that they’re being told all the necessary information, including the scheduling, pricing, and open seats of all available flights.
Turns out, that hasn’t quite been the case. Up until now, airlines have been able to tell booking websites what info they can and can’t share, and treating even the most basic availability info as “need to know.”
Additionally, booking websites commonly rank airlines higher or lower based on undisclosed payments or other business incentives that they receive from airlines.
What does this look like to those shopping for airfare? Prior to this regulation, when you shopped for flights on a booking website, certain options were placed on top of other search results to give the impression that they were the most desirable, whether due to price or limited availability.
By manipulating the available information, airlines are able to more effectively sell seats at higher prices. A study conducted by TravelTech last year found that the lack of airline transportation transparency results in an extra $6.7 billion in airfare spending each year for US flyers.
The new Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations attempt to make shopping for airfare more transparent. Pertinent information about all available flights now must be disclosed, including seat availability and pricing. In addition, if a specific flight is displayed in a more prominent position than alternate options, booking sites are now required to tell consumers why.
The goal of these regulations is to reduce the leverage that the largest four US carriers have in displaying deals and creating a more competitive marketplace.
One thing consumers should watch for: Online booking sites still won’t be required to disclose that not all airlines are available on their site. This means, for example, that when you search for flights on Google Flights or Kayak, it’s up to consumers to know that some airlines, such as Southwest, aren’t included in the results.
2. Making Refunds Required When Baggage is Delayed
You might have resigned yourself to paying $25 or more to check a bag when flying. However, it’s twice as difficult to swallow those fees when the bag you paid for doesn’t even show up on the carousel at baggage claim.
The White House has proposed a new rule that requires your airline to refund any checked baggage fees if your luggage is “substantially delayed,” though they didn’t define “substantially.”
While this new regulation certainly makes sense, many airlines already offer baggage fee refunds on their own, and some will even reimburse travelers for the cost of clothes they need to purchase if luggage is substantially delayed.
Still, DOT representative Anthony Foxx argues, the new regulations will protect consumers in worst-case scenarios “If you pay the baggage fee and your bags are not returned to you in a timely manner, you've essentially paid for a service you're not getting. This next step just makes sense.”
3. Eliminating “Cherry-Picked” Data Showing Only the Best Performance
Until recently, major airlines have only been required to disclose on-time performance data for the flights they operate—not those of those small regional airlines that the big legacy carriers partner with.
This hasn’t meant much for travelers who go between two major hubs. However, if an airline’s timeliness record is a concern and you fly to a smaller, secondary airport that’s transferring to a partner (codeshare) flight, you’ve been kept in the dark regarding how often those connecting flights arrive and depart on time.
The new rules will require those regional carriers, including Air Wisconsin, Allegiant, Endeavor, Envoy, Mesa, Republic, and Shuttle America, to also report their on-time performance data. This is especially helpful for business travelers who commute out of smaller airports to make more informed decisions when choosing their next flight.
4. Better Protection for Travelers with Disabilities
Traveling by plane can be stressful for anyone―the long wait, the security hassles, lost luggage. But the process can be even more grueling for people with disabilities.
To ensure that people with disabilities would not be discriminated against in air travel, Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA, 14 CFR 382). Under the ACAA, all domestic and international flights with the US as its destination or origination are required to provide certain accommodations, free of charge, to people with disabilities in a way consistent with providing safe travel for all passengers.
However, airlines occasionally fail to meet requirements—and, up until now, travelers with disabilities have been kept in the dark regarding how often which airlines fail to provide required equipment.
The new regulations will also require large US airlines to report on how often they mishandle wheelchairs. In short, this allows travelers with disabilities to better compare carriers.
While having access to an airline’s track record helps passengers with disabilities make informed travel decisions, what do you do if you’re about to board a plane and your needs aren’t being met?
First, ask to speak with the Complaints Resolution Official (CRO). All airlines are required to have a CRO immediately available (even if by phone) to resolve disagreements. This person has the authority to resolve complaints on behalf of the airline and should be your first stop if you feel the airline is not following the ACAA rules.
Whatever the outcome, make sure the CRO confirms his or her decision with the captain. An aircraft's pilots have the final say when it comes to issues of passenger safety, and asking a CRO to confirm adds another layer of protection for your rights.
Finally, if you’re not satisfied with the airline’s response, contact the Department of Transportation’s consumer protection hotline at 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY) to register a complaint.
5. Giving Passengers a Better Understanding of Baggage Delivery
Considering we’ve shared just how much data airlines have been allowed to skew, it might not come as a surprise that they’ve also been cherry-picking reports of how many bags are late to (or never arrive at) the carousel.
Apparently, this has been done by reporting lost baggage in comparison to the overall number of travelers to make their numbers of mishandled bags appear lower.
With the new regulations, passengers can learn the total number of bags an airline loses each year instead of an average based on the number of checked bags during any period.
Additional Airline Regulations Are In the Pipeline
On top of the current regulations, the DOT will be finalizing two additional rules in the next several months.
The first is whether or not travel agents (including online booking websites like the ones we’ve mentioned above, will need to adopt minimum customer service standards. This would mean that, no matter if you booked through Expedia, Kayak, or a smaller independent website, the fine print would be relatively the same.
While not finalized, this regulation proposes creating standards for rights such as being able to cancel a reservation within 24 hours and receiving a prompt refund in hopes of making sure that all consumers are treated fairly.
Finally, the DOT will redefine rules for ticket agents to make it clear that any company that markets air transportation must follow the same consumer protection rules.
This new rule affects smaller websites that offered package deals including airfare and smartphone apps that act as third-party airfare sales platforms and closes any loopholes that previously allowed them to deny customers refunds within 24 hours.
What Happens When an Airline Violates Regulations?
According to the administration, they’ve also been tougher on airlines which fail to meet the consumer protection rules put in place in 2009 and 2011. Since 2009, they claim to have taken more enforcement actions, through both cease and desist orders and fines, than in the preceding 12 years combined.
For airlines, the stricter oversight has meant a collective payout in over $32.5 million in civil penalties for violations of airline consumer protection and disability rules—particularly over passenger rights during tarmac delays and the planning and deplaning of travelers with disabilities.
For passengers, tighter regulations have also had real-world benefits. Most notable is a massive increase in the compensation due if an airline involuntarily bumps you off a flight.
Take Away: What Do the New Regulations Mean for Passenger Rights?
It’s important for passengers to know their rights when faced with air travel snafus, from delayed flights to overbooked planes. When all’s said and done, airlines are now required to:
- Reimburse passengers for bag fees if their luggage is lost.
- Allow passengers to hold a reservation made directly with an airline without payment or cancel a reservation within 24 hours without penalty, if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight’s departure date.
- Limited tarmac sits to three hours on domestic flights and four hours on international flights. (Any longer, and you must be allowed off the plane.)
- Providing consumers who are involuntarily bumped from oversold flights with greater compensation.
- Require carriers to disclose fees for baggage, meals, canceling or changing reservations, and other optional services on their websites.
- Require airlines to promptly notify consumers of delays of over 30 minutes, as well as cancellations and diversions.
- Mandate that advertised and listed airfares must be the entire fare to be paid by the consumer, including all government taxes, in every advertised price.
Still have questions? You can check the DOT's FAQ sheet for full particulars.
If you feel like your rights have been violated, it’s important to first contact your airline. If you’re left unsatisfied with the response, contact the DOT via:
- Their website: www.dot.gov/airconsumer
- Phone: (202) 366-2220/ (202) 366-0511 (TTY)
- Or, this web form: Air Travel Complaint/Comment Form