DOT prepares new protections for airline consumers

The rules – requiring faster refunds and initial disclosure of fees – are being worked out at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said Brian Deese, director of the White House’s National Economic Council. Deese said in a recent White House briefing that the plans “would protect airline passengers and promote fair competition (…) in the airline industry.”
The proposals will come in the wake of a significant increase in consumer complaints related to the pandemic about airlines, almost all of them expressing dissatisfaction with airlines’ reimbursement policies.

The first proposal, which is expected to be released in a few days, would force airlines to reimburse additional charges under more circumstances than current requirements, according to a source close to the plans.

That would force airlines to reimburse fees for checked baggage that arrives late, the source said – more than 12 hours late for a domestic flight and 25 hours late for an international flight. If the bag is not delivered in this window, the rule would require reimbursement of all checked baggage charges. The official said the current refund rules apply to lost – but not delayed baggage.

The proposal would also require prompt reimbursement of optional fees if the service – such as choosing a seat and using Wi-Fi internet – does not work or is not used, the source said. The current federal rule requiring this type of refund is limited to cases where the airline does not allow the passenger to board.

Another proposal, expected later this year, would require airlines to notify customers before selling tickets about baggage fees and to change or cancel tickets.

“This disclosure would prevent families from facing hidden airfare charges and make it easier for families to compare flight options to get the best tickets available,” the official said.

Baggage, change and cancellation fees amounted to $ 8.6 billion in 2019, according to reports from the Department of Transportation.

Complaints about airline policies and actions skyrocketed last year during the pandemic. The Department of Transportation said it handled more than 102,000 consumer complaints in 2020, up from just 15,000 the year before.

More than 87% of complaints were about airline refunds, prompting officials to issue official notices reminding airlines of the rules. Twice last year – in April and May – the Transportation Department received more complaints about refunds alone than it received on all topics combined for all of 2019.

Last month, several Democratic Senators and Congressmen called on the Department of Transportation to step in and remove the expiration dates on flight credits issued to airline passengers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The department has proposed a fine of more than $ 25 million against Air Canada for alleged ticket reimbursement violations, which the airline has contested.

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