By Quentin Fottrell
The Department of Transportation’s much-anticipated new rules to protect airline passengers tackle major issues like lost-baggage fees and price transparency, but some consumer advocates and critics say they don’t go far enough.
The rules come after years of passenger complaints about hidden fees, lost luggage, inadequate compensation for being bumped from overbooked flights and planes left sitting for hours on the tarmac due to busy airport schedules. In their defense, the airlines have been battling to regain profitability after an historically difficult decade.
Here are some major omissions:
A three- or four-hour tarmac wait is still too long.
The new rules establish a four-hour limit on tarmac delays for international flights of U.S. and foreign airlines; it’s currently three hours for domestic U.S. flights. Kate Hanni, co-founder of the non-profit organization FlyersRights.org, welcomes the inclusion of international flights, but adds, “I’d rather have three hours,” she says. “It’s not short enough. Our mission in future will be to get those timeframe shortened as airline capacity increases.” Notably, Hanni started her campaign for passenger rights after she and her family were stuck on a runway for nine hours in Austin, Texas without food, water or information. “The men at the back of the plane wanted to storm the cockpit,” she recalls.
There’s no compensation for delayed bags.
The new rules state: “Airlines will also be required to apply the same baggage allowances and fees for all segments of a trip, including segments with interline and code share partners.” But Hanni says passengers that have to wait for over an hour to get their bags back should be compensated too. “What happens to someone when their bags are late?” she says. “You have to purchase supplies and it’s a big hassle to get compensation.” Last year, just over 2 million baggage reports were filed for loss, damage or delayed luggage, or 3.57 passengers per 1,000, according to the Department of Transportation Bureau of Statistics.
Airlines should not overbook passengers.
Concert venues don’t overbook seats, so why should airlines? It may be too much to expect airlines not to overbook flights, given that it’s easier to resell concert tickets. That said, George Hobica from the fare-tracking site AirfareWatchdog, says $1300, the new maximum compensation for bumping someone from a flight, “won’t compensate someone who missed a $10,000 cruise, or forfeited a $5000 vacation and missed two days of work plus other expenses.” The Department of Transportation Bureau of Statistics says in 2010 there were 1.1 involuntary bumpees per 10,000 passengers, down 11% on 2009. However, that equates to 65,079 passengers who were involuntarily bumped last year. The Air Transport Association of America, which represents U.S. airlines, says the 2010 rate for those involuntary denied boarding was the lowest since 2006.
Passengers still need to calculate the final price.
Airlines will now have to prominently disclose all potential fees on their websites, including baggage fees, meals, canceling or changing reservations and advanced or upgraded seating. Airlines and ticket agents will also be required to refer passengers to baggage fee information and include all government taxes and fees in every advertised price. Air travel consumer advocate Christopher Elliott says, “Passengers still need a calculator. Southwest Airlines includes the first two bags in its prices. Other airlines don’t, so their tickets sometimes seem less expensive.”
There’s no compensation for long-term schedule changes.
Hobica says this needs to be addressed. “You buy a ticket in April and in October the airline tells you they don’t fly that route anymore, but you can buy a new fare on another airline for three times the price or get your money back? No. The original airline should put you on the alternate airline at the same price you paid.” He adds, “You buy a nonstop flight but the airline switches you to one making two connections at the same fare. No. A hamburger is not the same as a filet mignon.”
Airlines sell peanuts. It’s a big deal for those with allergies.
Believe it or not, Elliott says this has been the “No. 1” issue among consumers contacting his website, but allergen-free flights didn’t make it into the final protections. “Every time I write about peanut allergies, or any kind of allergies in connection with air travel, I get a flood of emails from allergy sufferers who implore the airlines to create allergen-free flights,” he says.
Pay Dirt put these these points to the Department of Transportation.
A spokeswoman cited Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s statement on the new protections: “Airline passengers have a right to be treated fairly. 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.” Hood makes further comments here.
The Air Transport Association of America tells Pay Dirt its members “are committed to continually improving customer service and continue to believe that market forces, not added governmental regulation, are a better approach to improving the customer experience.” In a statement Wednesday, it added: “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% of the ticket price.”
Do you think airline passengers are still being treated fairly?