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How Will the DOT's New Airline Passenger Rights Affect You?

airplane sky plane flying cloudsIt has been 12 years since the birth of the passenger rights movement during a winter storm; since then, its rejuvenation following interminable and inhumane tarmac strandings has even given travelers their own Erin Brockovich-like character in the form of consumer rights activist Kate Hanni. At long last, the U.S. Department of Transportation has just released new air travel rules designed to protect passengers from a raft of concerns, including hidden fees, overbooking, tarmac strandings, lost luggage and more.

The rules go into effect August 23, 2011, and overall, travelers come out winners in this round, at least. (Editor's Note: Some provisions of the rules have been delayed until January 24, 2012. See below for details.) That said, while the new rules are a step in the right direction, you will be forgiven if you are not overwhelmed -- most of them address things that should never have been happening in the first place, and so fall on the "well, duh" end of the spectrum. But let's at least give credit for someone actually writing these down and making common sense into something like common law.

This round of legislative handwringing was almost one for the "Travel News of the Odd" column, as the matter most worried over was a proposed onboard peanut ban in deference to peanut allergies. The proposal was rife with problems -- were airlines merely to be banned from serving peanuts, or were flights going to be completely peanut-free zones, which would mean passengers couldn't bring their own peanuts, couldn't have PB and J sandwiches for their kids, couldn't have anything cooked in peanut oil, etc. (This issue has been around even longer than passenger rights efforts; in fact, the peanut issue was the subject of the first Traveler's Ed column way back in the last century.) Ultimately, the DOT declined to take action due to the "the lack of a peer-reviewed study as required in the Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2000, Public Law 106-69."

Moving on to what actually was decided (or not decided, as the case may be), let's blitz through the main changes to figure out what they mean and don't mean for travelers.

Lost Bags and Bag Fees
Now that nearly every airline charges separate fees to check bags, they "will now be required to refund any fee for carrying a bag if the bag is lost." This is one of those no-brainer rules -- the airlines are being paid to carry your bag for you, so it's hard to see why legislation is needed for them to pay you back if they fail to do so -- but apparently the airlines made it clear they need this kind of baby-sitting oversight. See our recent blog post, Should Fliers Get Refunds for Lost Bags? DOT Thinks So, for more on this one. Note that there is no specific language about delayed bags in this set of rules, nor is there anything about obligations to replace the contents of lost luggage.

The Real Reason Fliers Hate the Airlines

Full Disclosure of Additional Fees, Part I
The first part of the rule reads, "Airlines will also have to prominently disclose all potential fees on their websites, including but not limited to fees for baggage, meals, canceling or changing reservations, or advanced or upgraded seating. In addition, airlines and ticket agents will be required to refer passengers both before and after purchase to up-to-date baggage fee information, and to include all government taxes and fees in every advertised price. Previously, government taxes and fees were not required to be included in the up-front fare quotation."

Editor's Note: This is one of the rules that the government has delayed until January 24, 2012.

Since the surge of surcharges the past couple years, and for a long time with respect to taxes, many travelers have asked to know the "all-in" price up front -- that is, what is it really going to cost to take this flight under normal circumstances of one bag, one carry-on, taxes, fees, etc. -- that is, we want a straight answer to the question, "What is the bottom line?"

Of all of the issues travelers hoped the DOT might address, this was the single most requested -- tell us the whole price.

The new rule shows promise in this regard, but in practice, this may not work out to be as obvious as it seems, due to the vague wording of the rule. Specifically, the phrase "to prominently display" is problematic (besides being a split infinitive) in that one person's "prominent" disclosure is another person's "tiny link to a heap of small print."

credit card online booking computer girl womanIn fact, the rules specifically say the disclosure "may be made through a hyperlink." Given that many travel booking Web sites are completely stuffed with information, advertisements, upsells and more, I suspect it won't be hard to miss the airline's idea of a prominent disclosure. This will vary by airline and Web site, but I would wager that often enough, you will have to look hard for this information to be able to find it. And then you'll have to do all the math yourself -- they are still not specifically obligated to show the "all-in" price.

So the truth is that the DOT blinked on this one -- they tidied things up a bit, but didn't clean house. Which brings us to...

Full Disclosure of Additional Fees, Part II
The DOT goes on to say that "in addition, the rule announces that the Department will issue a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking later this year that would require, among other things, that ancillary fees be displayed at all points of sale. "

Which is to say, in plain English: "Ah, well, the one thing you really wanted, truly straightforward pricing? Yeah, we'll get to this later."

The short version here is that passengers will now be eligible for higher levels of compensation when involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight; amounts vary by the length of the delay and the cost of the airfare; you can see the full ruling here.

It seems to me that the DOT got this one right; although overbooking seems like a bizarre business practice to most folks, many business and travel analysts have defended overbooking as essential to running an airline in the modern era. (The crux of the defense is that airlines have reams of data on the likelihood of no-shows on refundable fares on any given flight, and can avoid empty seats and accommodate more travelers by overbooking.) The recast rule shifts the risk for overbooking away from travelers and a bit more onto the airlines, where it should be, without being completely unfair to the airlines.


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