What a new crackdown on airlines could mean to travelers
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told airlines this week that passengers are still seeing an “unacceptable” number of disruptions this summer, and he’s pushing carriers to better take care of passengers when flights are canceled and delayed.
The letter sent to airline CEOs said that 3.2% of flights had been canceled through the first six months of the year and 24% delayed. Complaints are still worse than they were pre-pandemic, too.
“As we approach an increase in air travel for the Labor Day holiday, I want to reiterate what you have heard me say often: Americans expect when they purchase an airline ticket they will arrive at their destination safely, reliably and affordably,” said Buttigieg’s letter to airline CEOs.
Here’s what the Department of Transportation is pushing airlines to do to better care for passengers amid heightened disruptions.
A new web portal for disrupted passengers
Buttigieg said the DOT is planning to launch an “interactive dashboard” for air passengers to access information on federal rules to protect passengers and the policies of each airline.
The dashboard is set to launch Sept. 2 on the Transportation Department’s aviation consumer protection website. It will also have links to each airline’s website for customers to find the information on their own.
Meals and hotels
When flights are delayed for long stretches, passengers often have to cover the costs of food and hotels, potentially adding hundreds of dollars of expenses to trips. Airlines will sometimes give meal or hotel vouchers if delays are their fault, but what is their fault is often up to debate. For instance, if there is a storm in Orlando and pilots are delayed in getting to their next flight, that’s often blamed on weather, and compensation is denied.
Right now there are no federal rules or laws that require airlines to compensate passengers. Passengers can only seek refunds for cancellations.
Buttigieg said the DOT is contemplating new rules “that would further expand the rights of airline passengers who experience disruptions.”
“I urge you to take this opportunity to assess your Customer Service Plan to ensure that it guarantees adequate amenities and services to help passengers with expenses and inconveniences due to delays and cancelations,” the letter said. “The department asks that airlines, at a minimum, provide meal vouchers for delays of three hours or more and lodging accommodations for passengers who must wait overnight at an airport because of disruptions within the carrier’s control.”
That could also mean the airlines would pick up added costs such as clothing, taxis or cruise penalties after a flight is late or luggage is delayed.
Better access to customer service
During massive cancellation events, passengers are often stuck waiting in massive lines at the airport trying to rebook flights or find hotels. That’s because when one flight is canceled, usually many more are as well. Phone banks often have long queues as well.
Buttigieg wants that fixed.
“Regardless of the cause of the delays or cancellations, the department expects airlines to provide timely and responsive customer service during and after periods of flight disruptions,” the letter said.
Better refund policies
The chastising letter comes just two weeks after transportation officials announced that they would strengthen protections for travelers seeking airfare refunds.
Those changes are currently working their way through the rulemaking process and could require airlines to provide refunds if flights are delayed by more than three hours, if arrival and departure airports are changed or if airlines increase the number of connections.
It would also require passengers to be compensated if the type of aircraft they are flying on is downgraded or if upgrades, such as first-class travel, are no longer available.
Until now, definitions of delays and cancellations have been vague, giving the airlines wiggle room to avoid or delay giving refunds.
What the airlines say
Airlines declined to comment on the new rules, but the trade group for major airlines, Airlines for America, said its member carriers “comply with federal laws and regulations regarding cash refunds” and that they “strive to provide the highest level of customer service and look forward to working with the DOT to continue providing transparency for the traveling public,” said spokeswoman Hannah Evans.
The trade group said airlines gave out $21 billion in cash refunds in 2020 and 2021 even though many people, and the DOT, complained that airlines were creating barriers to passengers getting refunds.
Airlines have also pointed some blame at the federal government, particularly for shortages of air traffic controllers that have led to problems in Florida, New York and elsewhere. DOT data shows that 63% of flight delays and cancellations during the first five months of 2022 were caused by weather and national air system congestion.
Buttigieg did compliment airlines in his letter for reducing schedules this summer and fall to make flights more reliable.