U.S. DOT To Expand Passenger Protections in April

 - February 24, 2011, 4:30 AM

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) expects to issue a final rule designed to further consumer protections against tarmac delays of more than three hours and expand other passenger rights initiatives in April, a department spokesman told AIN this week.

The new rule would add several new dimensions to the so-called tarmac delay rule, enacted last April 29, including expanding its scope to foreign airlines and requiring “contingency plans” for small and non-hub airports. The rule would also require all airlines operating aircraft holding 30 or more passenger seats on scheduled and charter flights to or from the U.S. to report tarmac delay data to the DOT. Under the current rule, the department collects such data only for scheduled domestic flights of the 18 largest U.S. airlines.

Apart from foreign carriers, U.S. regional airlines stand to feel the most profound effects of the changes due to the new requirement for contingency plans at small and non-hub airports. Other changes include a provision to increase compensation for passengers involuntarily bumped from flights; allow passengers to make and cancel reservations within 24 hours without penalty; require full and prominently displayed disclosure of baggage fees, as well as refunds and expense reimbursement when bags don’t arrive on time; require “fair price” advertising; prohibit price increases after the purchase of a ticket; and mandate timely notice of flight status changes.

“Airline passengers have rights and should be able to expect fair and reasonable treatment when they fly,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement coinciding with the release of the proposed rule on June 2 last year. “With this rulemaking, we’re proposing to strengthen the consumer protections enacted last [year] and raise the bar for airlines when it comes to treating passengers fairly.”

Under the current rule, airlines may limit compensation for involuntary bumping to $400, if it arranges substitute transportation scheduled to arrive at the passenger’s destination one to two hours after the passenger’s original scheduled arrival for domestic flights, or one to four hours for international flights, and to $800, if the substitute transportation is scheduled to arrive more than two hours later for domestic flights, or more than four hours later for international flights. The proposed rule would quickly increase those limits to $650 and $1,300, respectively, and thereafter adjust the amounts for inflation every two years.

The department also proposed a number of measures to make it easier for consumers to know how much they will have to pay for air transportation. Carriers would have to provide special notice of any baggage fee increases and notify passengers buying tickets whether they must pay to check up to two bags.