Travel

New Passenger Rights Rules Will Make Air Travel Less Bumpy For Consumers

If you have ever been frustrated by mysterious plane delays, being bumped from a flight or finding out that fares aren't as cheap as advertised, relief is on the way.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced a new series of passenger rights, the second update in as many years. The new rules are aimed at eliminating some of the small irritation s of air travel — along with one of the nightmares.

"It's the biggest change in airline passenger protection since deregulation" in 1978, says Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, an advocacy group.

While passenger advocates are applauding the changes, they say they would have liked to have seen the federal agency go even further to protect consumers.

The bulk of the new rights won't begin until Aug. 23. That's too late for travel during the height of the summer. But for those traveling later in the year, here are some of your new rights :

—A bump in bumping compensation: If you're bumped from an oversold flight, you're entitled to some cash for your troubles.

Currently, you can receive the price of your ticket, up to $400, if the airline gets you to your destination on a domestic flight within a couple of hours of the original arrival time, and within four hours on international flights. For longer delays, you can receive twice the ticket price, not to exceed $800.

The new rules raise these limits. For short delays, you'll get double the price of your ticket, but no more than $650. For long delays, you will be entitled to four times the value of your ticket, not to exceed $1,300. These limits are to be adjusted every two years for inflation.

Airlines sometimes offer a voucher good toward a future flight in lieu of cash to passengers who are bumped involuntarily. But the new rules will require that airlines tell these passengers of their rights upfront — including that they are entitled to cash.

"You should always ask for the cash," says George Hobica, founder of the travel site Airfarewatchdog.com. "A voucher may only be good for a year, and it may be hard to spend it. Cash is kin g on airlines."

The new rule could be a drawback for bargain flyers, though. Airlines can pick and choose who gets bumped, and they will likely jettison passengers with the cheapest tickets to reduce how much they must pay out, says Leocha of Consumer Travel Alliance.

—Time on the tarmac: A December blizzard left nearly 30 planes sitting on the tarmac at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport for hours. One group of passengers spent almost 11 h ours in tarmac purgatory.

The airlines involved were foreign, so they weren't required to let passengers off the plane after three hours, as carriers on domestic flights would have been.

This nightmare moved the DOT to act. On international flights, U.S. and foreign carriers won't be able to keep passengers on the tarmac for more than four hours without giving them a chance to get off, so long as it's safe to do so. And airlines must make sure passengers have food, water, working bathrooms and medical treatment, if necessary, after two hours.

These sorts of situations are unusual, but the new rules should make them even rarer.

—Information, please: "The No. 1 thing that consumers really get frustrated about is the lack of information ... when something is going wrong," says Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCom pare.com.

When an aircraft is delayed on the tarmac, airlines will have to give passengers a status report every half-hour, with the reason behind the holdup, if known. And carriers will have to notify the public within a half-hour of learning about a change that will delay a flight by 30 minutes or more.

Leocha says this means airlines will have to keep their gate agents well-informed.

"A lot of times, the gate agents are as much in the dark as the passenger," he says.

—Lost bag fees: This is guaranteed to get the blood boiling: You pay a baggage fee, your luggage is lost during transport, and the airline keeps the fee.

The new rules will require that airlines refund fees when bags are lost. Hobica says it's not clear how long the bag must be missing before it is given up for lost.

(Airlines already reimburse passengers for lost luggage — up to $3,300 on domestic flights.)

—More disclosures: How often have you fallen for this gimmick: An airline advertises an extremely low fare to get you to take the bait. But once you look into the details and add up all the fees, the fare is downright pricey.

Now airlines will have to include all mandatory fees, including taxes, in their advertised fare.

Additionally, carriers will have to disclose all potential fees prominently on their websites. Still, Leocha says, airlines can quote fees using a price range, so this requirement might not prove very useful to consumers.

"At least it will give consumers an idea of how many fees there are. Their jaws will drop," he says.

Some passenger advocates want more disclosure.

Christopher Elliott, reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler magazine, would like consumers to be able to plug in a destination online, whether they will check a bag, buy a meal or use the Wi-Fi, and get a quote on the actual cost. Airlines have the technology to do this, he says, and such information would make it easier for consumers to shop among carriers.

The DOT is expected to propose further rules about fee disclosure later this year.

Meanwhile, if you are traveling this summer before the new rules take effect, take steps to minimize aggravations.

For example, weigh the bags you plan to check at the airport to avoid going over 50 pounds, which usually is considered overweight. Airlines in recent months have raised fees significantly for overweight bags, Hobica says. Spirit Airlines, for instance, recently changed its policy so bags over 40 pounds pay an overweight fee.

Some domestic travelers now find it cheaper to mail their luggage to their destination several days before their arrival, Hobica says.

Better yet, pack light and take your luggage with you into the cabin. You avoid fees and the chance your luggage will be lost or delayed.

Last year, 65,000 passengers in the United States were involuntarily bumped — a rare occurrence, given the millions of times people flew without incident, Hobica says. But if you can't risk being bumped, he says, fly JetBlue Airways, which doesn't oversell its flights.

And if you have a gripe and can't get it resolved with the airline, email your complaint to the DOT at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov.

"They take those emails and forward them to the airline," Leocha says. "Nothing gets a response from an airline like an email from the Department of Transportation."

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