DALLAS – The U.S. government is adding new protections for travelers when airlines lose their bags, bump them off flights or hold them on the runway for hours.
The airlines will also have to more clearly disclose the fees they charge.
Consumer advocates say the wide-ranging regulations announced Wednesday would improve the flying experience. Still, they wanted regulators to get even tougher on bag fees and make it easier to sue airlines over shoddy service.
Beginning in late August, passengers who pay $15 or more to check luggage will get a refund if their bag is lost. They’ll also be entitled to more money – up to $1,330 – if they’re bumped from a flight. Airlines will have to include government taxes and fees in advertised prices.
Delayed international flights won’t be allowed to sit on the tarmac for more than four hours, an extension of a year-old rule for domestic flights that greatly reduced three-hour delays.
Some advocates for the airline industry complained that the regulations could raise costs at a time when high fuel prices are threatening the airlines’ bottom lines, but the CEO of American Airlines said he didn’t see anything particularly alarming in the provisions.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the new regulations ensure that airlines treat travelers fairly.
“It’s just common sense that if an airline loses your bag or you get bumped from a flight because it was oversold, you should be reimbursed,” LaHood said.
Consumer advocates were generally pleased but suggested that more could have been done for passengers.
Kate Hanni of FlyersRights.org said airlines should refund baggage fees when bags are late, not just when they’re lost. And she favored a three-hour holding limit on international flights instead of four.
“But overall we’re winning,” Hanni said, and the new rule includes “a lot of good stuff, a lot of little things that will make people feel better about traveling.”
Others said the verdict was mixed.
“These are all baby steps and they’re good, but there’s more that can be done without bringing the airline industry to its knees,” said George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com.
Passengers bumped off oversold flights will be entitled to greater compensation – up to $650 or $1,330, depending on how long a passenger waits for a makeup flight. The limits are currently $400 or $800.
Hobica said that’s not enough compensation for delaying passengers’ vacations or causing them to miss cruises and weddings. He said airlines should also be required to provide alternate transportation if they cancel a flight other than for reasons beyond their control, such as bad weather.
Mark Pestronk, a Washington lawyer who advises travel agents, called the rule “a big disappointment” because regulators dropped a proposal to require that airlines include their customer-service promises in legal contracts with passengers. He said that means consumers can’t sue an airline that fails to live up to its promises; they can only file a complaint with the government.
Airlines said they’re already doing many of the things the Transportation Department wants, including disclosing fees and telling passengers about developing delays. They pointed to government statistics which show fewer bags are being mishandled and fewer passengers being bumped from oversold flights.