Feds Expand Protections for Airline Passengers

Airlines must reimburse passengers for baggage fees if their bags are lost, provide greater compensation to passengers who are involuntarily bumped from flights, extend the current ban on lengthy tarmac delays and disclose to consumers hidden fees, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which last week announced expanded protections for U.S. airline passengers.

The new rules, finalized on April 20, build on passenger protections issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation in December 2009, which prohibited U.S. airlines operating domestic flights from permitting aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours, with exceptions for safety, security and air traffic control-related reasons.

"Airline passengers have a right to be treated fairly," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "It's just common sense that if an airline loses your bag or you get bumped from a flight because it was oversold, you should be reimbursed. The additional passenger protections we're announcing today will help make sure air travelers are treated with the respect they deserve."

The newest passenger protections include:

Lost Bags and Bag Fees: Airlines will now be required to refund any fee for carrying a bag if the bag is lost. Airlines already are required to compensate passengers for loss, damage or delay of their baggage.

Full Disclosure of Hidden Fees: Airlines will now be required to disclose all potential fees on their websites, including those related to baggage, meals, canceling or changing reservations, and advanced or upgraded seating. Additionally, airlines must include all government taxes and fees in all advertised fares.

Bumping: The Department of Transportation has doubled the amount of money airlines must pay to passengers who are involuntarily bumped from oversold flights. Currently, passengers are entitled to cash compensation equal to the value of their ticket, up to $400, if the airline can get them to their destination within a short period of time. If they're delayed for a lengthy period of time (more than two hours for a domestic flight), passengers can double the price of their tickets, up to $800. Under new rules, the "short delay" compensation limit has been raised to $650 and the "long delay" compensation limit to $1,300.

Tarmac Delays: New rules extend the existing ban on tarmac delays to cover foreign airlines' operations at U.S. airports and establish a four-hour hard time limit on tarmac delays for international flights of U.S. and foreign airlines. Carriers also must ensure that passengers stuck on the tarmac receive adequate food and water after two hours, as well as working lavatories and any necessary medical treatment.

Other Protections: New rules also require airlines to allow reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment—or canceled without penalty—for at least 24 hours, if the reservation is made at least a week prior to departure; to promptly notify customers of delays over 30 minutes, as well as cancellations or diversions; and to ban post-purchase fare increases. Additionally, they require airlines to provide the government with data about tarmac delays for international and charter flights, which previously were exempt from reporting.

Most new passenger protections will take effect 120 days after their publication in the Federal Register. To review them, visit www.regulations.gov.