Travelers may soon be able to get refunds for delayed baggage, more accurate information about on-time performance of the airlines they fly and more transparency when booking tickets with online travel services, under executive actions announced by the Obama administration Wednesday.
“Airline passengers deserve to have access to clear and complete information about the airlines they choose to fly and to expect fair and reasonable treatment when they fly,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in making the announcement. “The actions we’re taking today and in the coming months will expand aviation consumer protections we have previously enacted.
“These actions will enable passengers to make well-informed decisions when arranging travel, ensure that airlines treat consumers fairly, and give consumers a voice in how airlines are regulated,” Foxx said.
Foxx said Wednesday’s announcement builds on efforts to promote competition and protect consumers at a time when mergers mean they have fewer choices when it comes to flying.
But Nicholas E. Calio, president and chief executive of Airlines for America, an industry trade group, said the public should be cautious about new efforts to “re-regulate” the industry.
“It would be difficult to find an industry that is more transparent than the airline industry; customers always know exactly what they are paying for before they buy,” Calio said. “Further, the fact that a record number of people are flying underscores that customers are benefiting every day from affordable fares and the ability to choose among carriers, amenities and service options that best meet their needs. Dictating to the airline industry distribution and commercial practices would only benefit those third parties who distribute tickets, not the flying public.”
Foxx said the administration already requires airlines to refund bag fees when luggage is lost, but he said officials soon hope to add a requirement that airlines refund fees when luggage is “substantially” delayed. Officials offered no details on how “substantially” would be defined, and there is no specific timeline for when the rule would go into effect.
Congress included a similar provision for lost or mishandled luggage in its funding extension for the Federal Aviation Administration approved this summer. The provision says passengers would be eligible for refunds if bags are delivered 12 to 18 hours after the scheduled arrival of a domestic flight or 15 to 30 hours after an international flight. It will be left to officials at the Department of Transportation to make a final determination.
Under the administration’s rules, airlines must also change the way they report the number of bags that are mishandled or lost. Instead of tallying the number of lost baggage reports and comparing those numbers with the overall number of travelers, they now will have to compare the number of mishandled bags with the total number of checked bags. Those changes will likely go into effect in January 2018.
The rules also include new protections for travelers who purchase tickets from online booking services. Foxx said that consumers may not be aware that some listings may be “biased” in favor of certain airlines. Online sites would have to be neutral or disclose any bias in their offerings. That requirement could go into effect by the end of the year.
Airlines also will have to revamp the way they report on-time performance by including flights operated by smaller regional carriers that are part of their networks.
And, for the first time, airlines will be required to report the number of wheelchairs they mishandle — an effort, Foxx said, to give customers with disabilities a measure of airline performance. This rule change also would go into effect in 2018.
Foxx noted that more than 700 million passengers are expected to travel on 9 million flights in the United States this year. He said the administration's actions will “spur” competition.
“Airline passengers deserve to be treated fairly and with respect when they book travel, when they are in the air and once they land,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a member of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “These new actions build on our previous efforts and will help ensure that consumers have access to more information so they can make informed decisions when choosing a flight and expand consumer protections, including requiring passenger refunds for delayed baggage. We need to continue working to make flying easier and more transparent for the public.”
The administration’s actions come on the heels of an effort by Congress to improve the flying experience for consumers. Several traveler-friendly provisions were included as part of an agreement approved by the House and Senate this summer that extended funding for the Federal Aviation Administration through September 2017.
In addition to the provision on lost and mishandled baggage, the legislation also included several provisions designed to expedite the security screening process, which came under scrutiny this spring after travelers reported hourslong waits at airports in Atlanta and Chicago. The legislation also requires airlines to seat families with children together without charging them an additional fee.