On April 20th 2011, the Department of Transportation released new regulations to restrict some of the most egregious practices of the airlines. While these sweeping reforms will alleviate many of the sources of passenger dissatisfaction, they are limited in scope. Let's take a look at the most important new rules and how they will affect the traveling public and their wallets.
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TUTORIAL: The Airline Industry Handbook
1. No Fees on Lost Bags
In the event your airline loses your luggage, you will be entitled to a refund of any bag fees paid. Unfortunately, this rule doesn't nearly cover the issues some of us have had with our luggage. What would be more helpful is a refund of your bag fee if your luggage is delayed. When we check bags, we expect them to arrive at our destination with us, not just some time that day. Should your bags get delayed, try requesting a refund for any bag fees if your luggage does not arrive on the same flight as you. If denied, ask for a chargeback from your credit card company.
One airline that does make an effort in this area is Alaska Airlines, which offers a guarantee that your bag will be delivered to the carousel within 20 minutes of arrival, or you will receive a voucher for $20 off of your next flight. Delta offers a fee rebate as well, but only if your luggage is delayed more than 12 hours, and you are required to apply for it. (Break through the clouds to see if these stocks will rocket higher, or crash and burn. For more, see Is That Airline Ready For Lift-Off?)
2. Additional Fee Disclosures
Airlines must now prominently disclose fees for luggage, meals, seat assignments, upgrades and ticket changes, rather than burying the fees in fine print on their websites. This will help travelers to make informed decisions before they purchase their ticket while improving their expectations when they travel.
3. Additional Involuntary Denied Boarding Compensation
Airlines will have to pay more to compensate displaced passengers when they oversell flights and no one is willing to give up their seat. While this rule seems limited to the rare occasions where passengers are involuntarily "bumped," it does have broader implications. Currently, an airline will continue to sell full fare tickets to oversold flights knowing that their huge profits on those last minute tickets will far outweigh the smaller denied boarding payments. With compensation of up to $1,300 for delays longer than two hours, airlines will now have more incentive to offer higher voluntary denied boarding compensation and less motivation to overbook flights as often.
4. 24-Hour Grace Period on Ticket Purchases
Airlines love to raise and lower their fares as if they were companies on the stock market. They also salivate at the opportunity to charge you a $150 change fee if you make a typo when purchasing your ticket. The Department of Transportation will now require that airlines allow you to hold a ticket at the same fare for 24 hours or cancel a previously purchased ticket within that time frame. Now you can feel free to snag a good deal when you see it and continue to keep shopping that day for a better one. Some airlines have already offered a similar policy but now this will be required on tickets for all flights purchased more than one week in advance. (For more, see 7 Air Travel Perks That Used To Be Free.)
5. Extending the Tarmac Delay Rules to Foreign Carriers
This should mean a lot less waiting on the runway. Last year, the government finally decided to force airlines to implement policies designed to eliminate the so-called "tarmac strandings" that had been occurring. Domestic carriers were required to supply food, water and access to working restrooms during ground delays longer than two hours, and to return to the gate after three hours. The result has been a dramatic decline in tarmac delays among domestic carriers, while foreign airlines continued to leave their planes in the middle of the field for hours on end on occasions when they had trouble accessing a particular gate. Now, foreign airlines must provide the same level of service during these delays, and return to the gate after four hours have passed. By returning to the gate and allowing passengers off the aircraft, people can make another flight, visit the lounge or cancel their trip altogether - options that were not available to those trapped in an airplane all day.
The Bottom Line
Over the past decade, passenger frustration with airlines has grown to an all-time high. Airlines have prioritized profits at the expense of customer satisfaction and now have a long way to go to win back customer loyalty. And while these government regulations alone won't fix all of the passenger abuses that occur they are a strong step in the right direction and help tilt the scales significantly in the direction of passenger rights. (For more, see Save On Planes, Trains, And Automobiles.)