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airplane window womanEver excitedly clicked on a super-low airfare, only to watch, horrified, as taxes and fees bloated the total cost to two or three times the original price?

This all-too-common experience could be a thing of the past for U.S. fliers. Starting this week, the Department of Transportation is instituting new regulations requiring airlines to include all mandatory taxes and fees in their published airfares. They will also need to offer a list of any baggage fees that could apply to your itinerary.

The new regulations are part of a broader slate of air passenger protections, many of which already went into effect in August 2011 — such as required baggage fee compensation for lost luggage, tarmac delay penalties for international flights and higher reimbursement for travelers involuntarily bumped from an overbooked plane. (See How Will the DOT’s New Airline Passenger Rights Affect You? for a full run-down.)

Besides the airfare advertising rules, other new provisions kicking in this week include the right to cancel your booking or hold a reservation without payment for 24 hours, provided that you’re booking at least a week in advance of your departure date. Airlines will also have to “promptly notify passengers of flight delays over 30 minutes,” according to the DOT press release, and they won’t be allowed to raise the price of your ticket after you’ve purchased it.

The new rules won’t actually make your flight cost less, and they won’t find your lost luggage. But at least you’ll know the true cost of your trip, and you won’t have to pay baggage fees for baggage you never see again.

Do you think the new rules go far enough in protecting fliers?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

money justiceA few weeks ago, we blogged about three planes that were left stranded on the tarmac for more than seven hours in Hartford. So today, admittedly, we felt a pang of satisfaction when we learned that the U.S. Department of Transportation has slapped a major fine on an airline for, lo and behold, leaving passengers stuck on the tarmac.

According to the Associated Press, American Eagle, a regional carrier operated by American Airlines, was fined $900,000 for weather-induced tarmac delays of more than three hours on 15 flights that arrived in Chicago on May 29. This fine includes damages to be paid to the fliers who were inconvenienced. Up to $250,000 of the $900,000 fine can be credited to passengers in the form of refunds, vouchers or awards miles. There were 608 people onboard the stranded flights.

This is the first tarmac-delay fine to be imposed by the Department of Transportation since the federal agency initiated new passenger protection laws in April 2010; those rules state that passengers stuck on the tarmac on a domestic flight for more than three hours must be offered the chance to deplane. Any airlines that fail to comply will face penalties of up to $27,500 per passenger. (To learn more, read Airline Passengers Get New Bill of Rights.)

A government-issued fine for passenger inconvenience is a fresh change for an industry in which petty fees and crummy customer service are de rigueur. But whether or not the $900,000 fine will serve as a warning for the airlines and save future fliers from the torments of epic tarmac delays remains to be seen. In How Will the DOT’s New Airline Passenger Rights Affect You?, Ed Hewitt suggests that some airlines might simply preemptively cancel more flights in order to avoid having to pay steep penalties for multi-hour tarmac delays. Writes Hewitt, “Clearly not everyone is sold on the tarmac delay rules; if cancellations really are higher as a direct result, then the problem is just being moved around, not solved. However, few will argue with the notion that multi-hour strandings with no relief, no recourse and no basic human necessities is a worthwhile trade-off.” And indeed, according to CNN Travel, cancellations are up since the passenger rights regulations took effect.

What’s your take? Did the airline get what it deserved — or should the government do more to protect passengers? Sound off in the comments.

— written by Caroline Costello

plane on tarmacLast weekend, hundreds of passengers were stranded on the tarmac at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport for more than seven hours. The Associated Press reports that three JetBlue planes and one American Airlines plane, which were originally bound for New York, were diverted to Connecticut and then left on the tarmac for the better part of the day on Saturday.

A JetBlue spokesperson told the AP that the planes were kept on the tarmac due to a series of complications, including equipment failure and low visibility in New York. When the passengers eventually deplaned after an interminable wait, they had to look for spur-of-the-moment accommodations in Connecticut. Many fliers spent the night curled up in an airport terminal.

But here’s the scary part: Toilets were jammed and provisions were low onboard the stranded planes. One passenger told the Hartford Courant, “‘We ran out of water. The bathrooms are all clogged up and disgusting. The power would go off every 45 minutes or so for five minutes or so, and that would freak people out. … I’ve heard about these kind of stories.'”

We’ve heard stories like this too. This unfathomable ordeal would make fine fodder for Airplane Horror Stories, our collection of disturbing-but-true tales from the skies. So what’s the worst headache a person can endure when traveling by plane? You decide:

— written by Caroline Costello

justice planeAir passengers bemoaning the loss of their luggage will now be legally entitled to receive baggage fee refunds from the airlines. It’s about time. And there’s more good news: Other passenger safeguards, including increased compensation for bumped fliers, improved airline fee disclosure guidelines and new tarmac delay rules, are on the way, courtesy of the good ol’ DOT.

It’s all part of the Department of Transportation’s new airline passenger protection rules, which we blogged about in April. Starting August 23, some of those rules go into effect. But other proposed passenger protection regulations are being delayed until the beginning of next year.

The following new rules start August 23:

Tarmac Delays: International flights will not be permitted to remain on the tarmac for longer than four hours without allowing passengers to deplane; this rule is a follow-up on a similar rule for domestic flights. (Exceptions are permitted for safety or security reasons.) Additionally, carriers must establish tarmac delay contingency plans, and passengers must be updated on the status of delays every 30 minutes.

Fee Disclosure: Fees for optional services, like booking a ticket by phone, must be posted prominently on airlines’ Web sites.

Better Customer Service: Airlines must offer reimbursed baggage fees to travelers when luggage is lost. (This does not apply if luggage is merely delayed.)

Denied Boarding Compensation: The minimum compensation amount for passengers who’ve been involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight has increased to 200 – 400 percent of the value of a one-way ticket, up to $1,300. For more details, see Bumping and Overbooking.

Here are the rules that have been delayed until January 24, 2012:

Baggage Fees: Airlines will have to post any changes in baggage fees on their Web site home pages for at least three months.

Flight Status Changes: When operating any aircraft with 30 or more seats, all airlines will have to notify passengers of cancellations or delays of 30 minutes or longer within 30 minutes of becoming aware of those changes.

Better Customer Service: Airlines will have to permit ticket cancellations within 24 hours after reservations are made, without penalty.

Post-Purchase Price Increases: Fare increases that take place after a passenger has purchased a ticket will be banned (except when the passenger is given full disclosure of a potential price increase or when the increase is in government taxes or fees).

Full-Fare Advertising: Airline ads will be required to state the full fare to be paid, including government taxes and fees. (This rule wasn’t originally scheduled to take effect till October 24, but now, like the others, it’s been postponed until January 24.)

For more information, read How Will the DOT’s New Airline Passenger Rights Affect You?

— written by Caroline Costello

suitcases baggage luggage bagsThe U.S. government is coming to bat for travelers, pushing for the implementation of new rules that would further defend endlessly abused fliers against the big bad airlines.

The Department of Transportation wants to address some of the biggest complaints about airlines, reports the Associated Press. Some of changes proposed by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood include refunds for checked bag fees when luggage is lost, an increase in the amount of money paid to bumped passengers, the option for fliers to cancel reservations within 24 hours of booking at no charge, and a more lucid disclosure of extra fees.

At present, airlines aren’t required to refund checked baggage fees if luggage is lost or damaged. Contributing blogger Dan Askin learned this the hard way when he had to pay $50 for the privilege of having his bag destroyed by US Airways. Such behavior has been de rigueur for the airline industry. But will LaHood’s proposal change things for the better?

The AP spoke to Nick Gates of SITA, an aviation technology provider, who warned that the airlines might use the proposed changes as an excuse to raise fees. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise to us; we’ve seen new rules implemented by the DOT backfire before.

When the Department of Transportation put into effect its passenger rights bill last year, one of its goals was to prevent lengthy delays by imposing hefty fines any time a plane sat on a tarmac for longer than three hours. But the bill may have had unintended consequences for travelers. Crankly Flier argues that the tarmac delay rule incited a significant increase in flight cancellations in 2010, reporting that there were an additional 5,000 cancellations in 2010 versus 2009 (even though weather conditions were 30 percent better in 2010 than in 2009).

Will the proposed DOT rules be a boon for fliers, or might passengers face a surge of reactionary fees or an increase in ticket prices? Share your thoughts!

— written by Caroline Costello