DOT Releases Final Rule on Airline Passenger Protections

 - April 20, 2011, 7:49 AM

The U.S. Department of Transportation today announced new airline passenger protections that will extend the ban on ramp delays to international flights and, crucially for regional airlines, require carriers to coordinate so-called ramp delay contingency plans with small and non-hub airports.

The rule also requires all airlines operating airplanes certified to carry 30 or more passengers to report lengthy tarmac delays at U.S. airports with the DOT, including data for international flights and charter flights. The previous rule required only the 16 largest U.S. passenger carriers to file the data, and only for domestic scheduled flights. It also did not cover international carriers and limited the contingency plan requirements to large- and medium-hub airports and diversion airports.

Under the new rule, international carriers that have landed at a U.S. airport must deplane within four hours, except in cases where safety and security considerations call for an exemption and in instances where air traffic control advises the pilot-in-command that returning to the gate or permitting passengers to disembark elsewhere would significantly disrupt airport operations. The exceptions apply equally to U.S. and international carriers. However, due to the generally long-haul nature of international operations and differing expectations of their passengers, the department decided to allow international carriers one more hour to deplane than it allows domestic carriers before imposing a fine.

Meanwhile, the DOT essentially rejected the Regional Airline Association’s concerns regarding extending the contingency plan requirement to small and non-hub airports. According to the RAA, the cost to expand tarmac delay contingency plans to smaller airports outweighs the benefits, and no evidence exists to suggest small- and non-hub airports would benefit significantly from the rule.

“We are not convinced by commenters’ concerns that requiring carriers to coordinate their plans with small hub and non-hub airports will have a significant financial impact on carriers,” the DOT wrote in the final rule. “U.S. carriers are already required to coordinate plans with large-hub and medium-hub airports and should be able to tailor existing plans to apply to these smaller airports. We recognize that the requirement to coordinate contingency plans with airports is a new requirement for foreign carriers, but expect that it will not be overly burdensome for foreign carriers as the large-hub and medium-hub airports are familiar with the coordination process after having worked with the U.S. carriers on tarmac delay contingency plans this past year.”

The DOT stressed the importance of contingency plans in cases where diversions occur. “In situations where flights must be diverted from their intended destination airports, it is imperative that airlines and the airports that regularly serve as their diversion airports have already discussed things such as locations within the airport where passengers are allowed to wait when TSA or CBP personnel are not present and the availability of equipment to deplane/bus passengers to the terminal to minimize the hardship to travelers,” said the DOT in the final rule.

“It is essential that airlines involve airports in developing their plans to enable them to effectively meet the needs of passengers,” the DOT continued. “The rule on coordination with airports is also being clarified to ensure that at airports, like JFK, where operations such as snow removal and gate use are managed by entities other than the airport authority (e.g., a carrier, a consortium of carriers, or a contractor), carriers covered by this rule must also coordinate with these terminal operators.”

On the data reporting requirement, the rule now requires any U.S. or foreign carrier that operates passenger service (charter or scheduled) to, from or within the U.S. using any aircraft with a passenger capacity of 30 or more seats to submit a monthly set of data regarding tarmac delays of three hours or more at a U.S. airport to the extent that the carrier doesn’t already provide such data to the DOT. If a covered carrier did not operate a flight with a three-hour tarmac delay, the rule requires the carrier to submit a so-called negative report, or one attesting to the absence of three-hour ramp delays.

Again, the RAA argued against the new requirement, reasoning that most carriers must already retain tarmac delay data for two years and the department can request such information for policy-making purposes whenever it feels the need. The RAA also contends that the DOT failed to provide a quantifiable cost/benefit analysis in the NPRM to justify such a requirement. In the final rule, however, the DOT stressed the importance of painting “a more complete picture” of lengthy tarmac delays, so it can analyze the issue by carrier, by region/airport, by month, or by the type of flight, as appropriate.

Other elements of the new passenger rights rule cover bag-fee reimbursement in cases of lost luggage, greater compensation for passengers “bumped” from flights and the disclosure of hidden fees.  Airlines will now have to “prominently” disclose on their websites all potential fees, including those for baggage, meals, canceling or changing reservations, or advanced or upgraded seating. Also, all fare quotations must now include taxes and all fees. Furthermore, the rule announces that the department will issue a supplemental NPRM later this year that would require, among other things, the display of ancillary fees at all points of sale.

Today’s rule doubles the compensation airlines must pay passengers “bumped” from an oversold flight. Currently, the rule entitles bumped passengers to cash compensation equal to the value of their tickets, up to $400, if the airline manages to get them to their destination within one to two hours of their originally scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and one to four hours of their originally scheduled arrival time for international flights. For delays more than two hours for domestic flight and more than four hours for international flights, the rule entitles passengers to double to price of their tickets, up to $800.

Under the new rule, bumped passengers subject to short delays will receive compensation equal to double the price of their tickets up to $650, while those subject to longer delays would receive payments of four times the value of their tickets, up to $1,300. The rule also calls for inflation adjustments every two years.

Most provisions of the rule will take effect 120 days after its publication in the Federal Register.