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Airline Passengers Get New Bill of Rights

Fewer Delays = More Cancellations?
cancel canceled cancelled cancellation sign airport train departure boardThe airlines are certainly no slouches when it comes to finding loopholes, and they are already maneuvering to slip through them -- to the detriment of the traveling public, of course. Most specifically, airlines may opt to cancel flights outright rather than risk fines.

These tactics were even threatened during the time the airlines were fighting the legislation, so they are not only planning on it, they are counting on it.

How could this play out? Say your airline knows there are some weather problems on the way to your departure airport, and that clearance to take off may be withheld so that planes are not stuck in the air unable to land. However, the airline also needs the gate at which your plane would be held in order to deplane and load other flights to and from other destinations -- so they need to get your plane out of the way. Under the new law, an airline may opt simply to cancel your flight rather than risk boarding the plane, only to have it held on the tarmac awaiting permission to fly.

So instead of being stuck on the tarmac, you are stuck in the airport -- where the airline may not face the same fines and payouts. In this case, the airline's responsibility is the same as with other flight cancellations in accordance with their specific cancellation policy (which is now mandated to be displayed on the carrier's Web site).

US Airways Execs Predict As Much
At the CrankyFlier.com, a favorite blog of our editor, Brett Snyder reports that US Airways COO Robert Isom acknowledged that "the defense we have is canceling flights." But CEO Doug Parker dramatically conceded that the airlines got themselves into this mess by not fixing an operational problem, so now they have a legislative problem; "we did it to ourselves," he said. Read Cranky's short and interesting report.

What to Expect, What You Can Do
Airline execs predict that this summer will offer the first real challenges for airlines trying to comply with the new rules. If your flight is potentially facing serious departure delays, and you are concerned about a cancellation, think on the following to reduce your exposure.

  • Understand the new rules. The FAQ linked above is a pretty easy read (and an interesting one if you are a regular traveler, as we assume most of our readers are).

  • The legislation specifically indicates that you must be allowed to get off the plane at the three-hour mark -- so be ready to go if this time approaches.

  • If your plane does return to the gate for you to deplane, your airline may allow passengers to reboard and restart the itinerary (and clock). Be very aware of what is going to happen if your plane returns to the gate so you are not left behind and you don't forfeit your rights.

  • If a flight is almost but not quite ready to leave, airlines have the right to poll passengers as to whether they want to deplane as the three-hour mark approaches (well, sort of -- the rules regarding polling and acting on passenger preference are very squishy). Be prepared to make decisions along these lines.

  • cell phone woman airport textMonitor airport delays more carefully. You can learn about airport delays almost anywhere these days, from airline Web sites to weather reports. If your airport is starting to see considerable delays, you might want to anticipate possible cancellations and plan accordingly.

  • Use automatic and mobile notification tools to monitor flight status. Airlines and booking sites almost all offer automated flight status update tools, whether accessible by computers, smartphone or regular phone; use these tools so you are not surprised.

  • As always, you will want to know your rights and (especially) your options when there is a delay of this magnitude. If you get off the plane, how likely are you to get on another one soon? Are there flights at later times or on other airlines that you can take? Research your other options before the day of your flight.

    At the very least, we can hope that even delayed planes no longer become instant prisons -- but of course not nearly as comfortable or well-provisioned as most prisons. To me, the requirements to provide for some basic human needs are the most heartening parts of the new rules. As much as the airlines protest and even threaten, this is simple stuff -- don't strand people on airplanes for nearly half a day, and feed them if you do. Any airline that can't do that doesn't deserve our trust anyway. We will continue to see tarmac strandings, as well as some fines, but hopefully the almost primal and inhumane experiences that seem to bubble up into the news every few months are a thing of the past.

    Go Anyway,
    Ed Hewitt
    Features Editor
    The Independent Traveler

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