"Come Fly the (Occasionally) Friendly Skies." in Those Public Entries

  • May 10, 2023, 1:18 p.m.
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  • Public

Biden administration proposing rule changes to compensate passengers for flight delays

By Maureen Groppe, published 5/9/23

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration wants to require airlines offer compensation beyond refunds for “controllable” flight cancellations or significant delays.

President Joe Biden on Monday said the Transportation Department will propose later this year new regulations detailing how and when airlines must provide cash or other compensation and cover expenses for meals, lodging, and rebooking when carriers are responsible for stranding passengers.

“If your airline is very delayed or cancelled, and the airline could’ve prevented that, you deserve more than just getting the price of your ticket. You deserve to be fully compensated,” Biden said. “Your time matters. The impact on your life matters.”

In the meantime, consumers will be able to check the government site FlightRights.gov to see what airlines currently offer — which the administration says is not enough.

Airlines for America, the industry trade group for the leading U.S. airlines, pushed back saying airlines have no incentive to delay or cancel a flight. The group said most flight cancellations this year were caused by severe weather or air traffic control outages.

Airlines, the organization said, have taken responsibility for “challenges within their control.”

The ten largest airlines guarantee meals and free rebooking on the same airline and nine guarantee hotel accommodations.

Virtually no airlines offer compensation on top of refunds or amenities, according to the White House.

Only one airline guarantees frequent flyer miles, and two guarantee travel credits or vouchers if passengers experience significant delays or cancellations that are caused by something within the airline’s control such as a mechanical issue, the administration said.

None guarantee cash compensation for preventable delays and cancellations. Biden pointed out that Canada and the European Union have policies mandating this type of additional compensation.

The announcement is the latest in a series of steps administration has taken to improve air travel and passenger protections.

Previous actions

  1. Ticket price transparency: Last year, the administration proposed a new rule to keep consumers from being surprised by hidden fees. Airlines and third-party booking sites would have to disclose upfront — the first time an airfare is displayed — any fees charged to sit with a child, for changing or cancelling a flight, and for checked or carry-on baggage.

  2. Refunds: Other pending rules changes would require refunds for services, such as WiFI, that customers paid for but were not provided, and would require airlines tell passengers they have a right to a refund when a flight is canceled or significantly changed.

  3. Customer service dashboard: An interactive dashboard launched last year shows side-by-side what each airline offers travelers when flights are canceled or significantly delayed for reasons within their control, such as maintenance issues, staffing shortages, or delays in cleaning, fueling or baggage handling.

  4. Family seating help: As of March, the dashboard can help families figure out which airlines will let them sit together for free.

Why it matters

The Biden administration argues stranded passengers must be better protected from financial losses. Officials also think requiring compensation could improve airline’s on-time performance. One study found that compensation requirements in the European Union led to decreased flight delays, according to the Transportation Department.

Part of the rule-making process will include defining a “controllable cancellation and delay” that would trigger compensation.

The proposed regulation also aims to set requirements for “timely customer service” during and after periods of widespread flight irregularities.

Airlines and consumer protection groups can weigh in during the public comment process.

Flight cancellations

Flight cancellations as travel recovered from the pandemic were due mostly to factors that airlines controlled, including maintenance issues or lack of a crew, according to a Government Accountability Office report earlier this month.

Cancellations grew to about 2.7% of all flights last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Aside from 2020, the overall cancellation rate has been below 2% every year since 2015.

As air travel began to surpass pre-pandemic levels this spring, travel organizations warned the Federal Aviation Administration that more air-traffic controllers were needed to avoid delays and cancellations.

The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group advocating for the travel industry, recommended accelerating the modernization of air-traffic control technology and airports. The group noted that there are 1,200 fewer certified air-traffic controllers than a decade ago.

“Periods of high demand—like spring break and holiday weekends—are a stress test that reveal the inadequacies of our current air travel system,” U.S. Travel Association CEO Geoff Freeman said in a statement in March. “Demand may be high now, but countless frustrating air travel experiences may cause passengers to choose other modes of transportation or simply stay home in the future.”

Well… This could go one of two ways. The first way -the one I and probably everyone else hopes it will go- will mean airlines will have to step up their game, hire more pilots and flight crew, and get planes from point A to point B in a timely manner. The second way… Let’s just say, Tenerife, JAL 123, and 9/11 won’t be the worst plane crashes for much longer.

Also: Most of the major airlines forced their pilots into early retirement at the beginning of COVID, and because the mandatory retirement age is 65 and there aren’t enough new pilots coming in to replace them (gee, I wonder if the combined cost of getting an undergrad in aviation mechanics/engineering and flight school and having to fly for smaller or cargo carriers at a much lower salary than a commercial pilot, just to rack up flight hours, has anything a-tall to do with it?!), we’re about to face a massive pilot shortage.

But seriously, something has got to be done. I’ve generally had pretty good experiences flying, but last year, when I flew from Burlington to Indianapolis, was an absolute clusterfuck.

First thing: Flight out of Burlington was delayed by about three hours. This was annoying, since I didn’t know if there would be a later connection out of Charlotte (I can’t afford direct flights, I’m poor!), but I knew from past experience that airlines will do their best to get people on the next plane to their final destination.

Second thing: Flight from Charlotte to Indy was cancelled… Which I found out when I landed in Charlotte, since ain’t no way I’m paying for in-flight wifi. I ask the crew at the gate when’s the next flight to Indy and can they get me on standby. They tell me the next one leaves Monday afternoon. It’s now almost eleven o’clock PM on Friday night, and my vacation ends on the following Thursday. I ask if they’re offering hotel and food vouchers; they aren’t. I ask if, in that case, they have anything to Chicago or Cincinnati. They do have a flight to Chicago that’s leaving in about thirty minutes, so I’ll have to run to the gate. No problem, and I’ll call American Airlines when I get there and ask if they can get me on the next flight to Indy.

Third thing: I land in Chicago and call American Airlines… Who tell me that I’ve already used my flight voucher by going to Chicago. I tell the CSA why I took the Chicago flight (i.e., I wasn’t able to access the notification of the original flight’s cancellation due to being five miles above the ground between Burlington and Charlotte, my vacation would have ended before it had a chance to begin if I’d stayed in Charlotte, and American wasn’t offering vouchers or compensation for food and lodging), and said that I would be willing to pay for a one-way ticket if it comes to that, but since I did nothing wrong, I’d like it if American could get me to Indy like I originally paid for and they promised. (I want to note, I was extremely polite during all of this, because I knew they were getting screamed at by other passengers.) So, American actually did put me on the first flight to Indy, at 8:45 am Saturday, at no cost to me.

Thank glob, because by that point, I’d been up for twenty hours and still had to wait another four to get to Indy, where I had a waxing appointment at noon. Suffice it to say, by the time I was done getting waxed, my mother drove me to her house, took me up to the guest bedroom (aka my old bedroom), and said, “Don’t come out of there until you’ve slept for at least four hours.”

(Of course, the great thing about the Chicago-Indy route, it’s a super-short flight. Google says 1 hr 15 mins, but I think it’s closer to an hour. Sometimes there’s a delay in taking off or landing, but basically, the flight is: Takeoff, get to cruising altitude, stay there for 15 or 20 minutes, descend, land, gtfo the plane.)

And flying’s just gotten worse since then. Remember all those Southwest flights that were grounded during Christmas week? And again last month? Which gave us that viral video of the guy screaming at a crying baby? Yeah, das gonna keep happening, if airlines don’t get a swift kick in the ass that makes them (a) hire more flight crews, (b) get flights in the air timely, (c) beef up their computer systems¹, and (d) makes them want to do all of these, on pain of having to pay customers for any/all of these failures.

Either way, I’m glad I have a new-ish car (okay, a 2019; still the newest car I’ve ever owned) that gets good gas mileage. If flying gets better, great; if not, ROAD TRIP!!!

¹The official line from Southwest was that both the December 2022 and April 2023 groundings were due to a “computer glitch” (well, that, and the Rochester Snowpocalypse; I’m sure that had something to do with some of the delays and cancellations). So, like, invest in better computers or something?

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