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

Tarmac Delays
airplane woman tarmac airport delay wait waitingAs I explained here, the regulation on tarmac delays was a blistering success with respect to reducing strandings -- at least until serious winter weather hit the nation. According to the DOT, "Between May 2010 and February 2011, the first full 10 months the rule was in effect, the largest U.S. airlines reported only 16 tarmac delays of more than three hours, compared to 664 from May 2009 through February 2010."

The old rule was restricted to domestic flights, however, and a few very serious tarmac delays did occur this year on international flights, including an 11-hour tarmac stranding (on the tail end of a 16-hour flight, oof) at JFK in December. The new rule now includes operations of foreign airlines at U.S. airports, and sets a "four-hour hard limit on tarmac delays for international flights of U.S. and foreign airlines, with exceptions for safety, security or air-traffic control-related reasons" (let the finger-pointing begin). The same $27,500 per passenger fine will apply for violations.

So tarmac delays on domestic flights all but disappeared, while the cancellations that airlines threatened did not fully materialize, at least until the major winter snowstorms hit -- and even then it's not really clear whether the airlines preemptively canceled flights to avoid tarmac delay fines or merely just to avoid strandings and overall misery across the board. Other analyses blame staff reductions and overworked crews for many delays, as crewmembers exceeded their legal hours on the job, and had to be replaced.

Cranky Flier provides an alternate view here -- but DOT statistics indicate that for many months that did not feature serious weather problems, delays actually went down.

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. Watch for this topic to continue churning.

Airport Delays: Six Ways to Cope

The new DOT strictures also establish the following rules:

  • Requiring airlines to allow reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or canceled without penalty, for at least 24 hours after the reservation is made, if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight's departure date.

    This will undoubtedly result in more canceled/withdrawn reservations, so it's not hard to see how this conflicts directly with the overbooking rule; it will be interesting to see how airlines deal with this.

    Editor's Note: This rule has been delayed until January 24, 2012.

  • Requiring airlines to promptly notify consumers of delays of over 30 minutes, as well as cancellations and diversions. This notification must take place in the boarding gate area, on a carrier's telephone reservation system and on its website.

    delayed delay departure board airportAs I have noted many times in the past, if the airlines simply treated passengers like adults more often, and told them the truth in a timely way about delays, cancellations and the like, they would get a LOT more slack from their customers. Again, it seems absurd that this rule needed to be written down, but there you go; it is good to see this in place.

    Editor's Note: This rule has been delayed until January 24, 2012.

  • Banning post-purchase fare increases unless they are due to government-imposed taxes or fees, and only if the passenger is notified of and agrees to the potential increase at the time of sale.

    You mean the old bait and switch wasn't against the rules? Shocking. Well, now it is.

    Editor's Note: This rule has been delayed until January 24, 2012.

  • Requiring more airlines to report lengthy tarmac delays at U.S. airports with DOT, including data for international flights and charter flights. Previously, only the 16 largest U.S. passenger carriers were required to file this data, and only for domestic scheduled flights.

    Obviously this is mainly a reporting requirement, which of course will cost the airlines something to do, but it will give a much truer picture of how well things are working with the air traffic system in general. More comprehensive data means a better picture of conditions, which can only lead to improvements for travelers and airlines alike.

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    The Spin
    Passenger rights activist Kate Hanni of FlyersRights.org greeted the new rules enthusiastically, while the Air Transport Association issued an oddly clinical statement.

    Clearly the new rule set looks like a win for travelers, but let's wait until all the returns are in come fall, as the airlines have proven truly adept at responding to new legislation in ways that few would anticipate. Overall, though, it appears that the current administration at the DOT seems willing to adopt and enforce at least simple common-sense guidelines, which will at minimum make the trip to the airport seem less like a trip to a casino, where every game is rigged in the house's favor.

    Go Anyway,
    Ed Hewitt
    Features Editor
    The Independent Traveler

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