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New Rules for Airlines Protect Passengers

The Department of Transportation issues its final rules requiring cash refunds from airlines and protecting passengers against hidden fees

By Linden M. Bayliss

To aid in expanding consumer protections for airline passengers, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced final rules in April that require airlines to shape up when it comes to properly informing customers about costs. These rules will significantly expand consumer protections in air travel when it comes to refunds and hidden fees, allowing planners and attendees to travel with less burden and more peace of mind.

DOT’s final rules will require airlines to properly inform consumers about all costs and provide timely cash refunds when necessary. || Photo by Ralf, courtesy of Adobe

“Passengers deserve to know upfront what costs they are facing and should get their money back when an airline owes them—without having to ask,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a prepared statement. “[These] announcements will require airlines to both provide passengers better information about costs before ticket purchase, and promptly provide cash refunds to passengers when they are owed—not only saving passengers time and money, but also preventing headaches.” These rules were first suggested for consideration by DOT in the Executive Order on Promoting Competition signed in 2021.

Cash Refunds
The first rule requires airlines to promptly provide passengers with automatic cash refunds when owed due to cancelled or significantly changed flights, delayed checked luggage, or failures in providing purchased ancillary services like Wi-Fi.

Without this rule, those traveling for work or otherwise have to navigate a patchwork of cumbersome processes to request and receive a refund—searching through airline websites to figure out how to make the request, filling out extra digital paperwork, or sometimes waiting for hours on the phone. In the past, passengers typically would also only receive a travel credit or voucher by default from many airlines instead of getting their money back, meaning they could not use their refund to rebook on another airline when their flight was changed or cancelled without navigating an often complicated request process.

The final rules require refunds to be automatic; issued promptly (within seven days for credit card purchases and 20 days for other methods); in the original form of payment; and for the full amount, including taxes and fees.

Protection From Surprise Fees
The second rule requires airline and ticket agents to tell consumers upfront what fees they charge for things like checked bags, carry-on bags, changes to a reservation, or reservation cancellations. This ensures that consumers can avoid surprise fees when they purchase tickets from airlines or ticket agents, including both brick-and-mortar travel agencies or online travel agencies.

With this rule, airlines are required to disclose all fees (baggage, change, cancellation, etc.) the first time fare and schedule information is provided; explain all fee policies (such as weight and dimension limitations for baggage) before ticket purchase; share all fee and policy information with third parties that sell airline tickets; inform customers that seats are guaranteed so they can avoid unnecessary seat selection fees; provide both standard and passenger-specific fee information; and end all bait-and-switch tactics where discounted flights are advertised but do not include all carrier-imposed fees in the listed price.

Additional Rules
DOT is also pursuing a few other rulings to help consumers out. These would:

  • Propose to ban family seating fees and guarantee that parents can sit with their children for no extra charge when they fly.
  • Propose to make passenger compensation and amenities mandatory so that travelers are taken care of when airlines cause flight delays or cancellations.
  • Expand the rights for passengers who use wheelchairs. The comment period on this proposed rule closes on May 13, 2024.

With these new rules, the goal is that passengers can stay informed and in control when it comes to travel costs. Travelers can learn more about their protections when they fly at FlightRights.gov.