If you follow this sort of thing, you've already heard that the US Department of Transportation has promulgated a new set of regulations to protect airline travelers and airfare consumers. We've just finished reading all 97 pages of DTOS59-09-F-10089, or "Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections II" as it's officially known, so let us break it all down for you.
The new rules fall into two categories: those designed to address sensational headline-grabbing issues that will affect a relatively small percentage of the flying public; and those that address problems that you don't normally see discussed on the evening news.
First, the headline-grabbers: a refund of checked bag fees if the bag is lost by the airline, all fees posted on a page linked from the airline's website home page, and tarmac delay rules applied to international flights.
Refund of bag fees if luggage is lost
Airline passengers hate fees, Airfarewatchdog.com gets lots of complaints about them, and the media love to write about them, but nothing is more galling than paying a fee for a service that you don't get, so this is an absolute no brainer. If you send something by FedEx and if it's lost or even if it arrives past the promised delivery time, you get a refund no questions asked, so why should airlines be any different? But on a percentage basis, relatively few passengers experience having a checked bag totally lost. Many more pay fees for bags that are simply delayed, and often these delays stretch on for days. Airfarewatchdog is disappointed that the rule doesn't include delayed bags, but this is better than nothing.
Full disclosure of all fees on websites
Although airline fees have been big news (and big money makers), they still take many passengers by surprise, so this makes perfect sense. To quote the document, "The Rule requires that each covered U.S. and foreign carrier disclose applicable baggage fees on e-ticket confirmations; post notice of any increases in baggage fees on its home page and maintain any such notice for at least 3 months after the increase; and provide a link from its home page to a page that contains a full disclosure of all baggage and other optional fees for services that passengers may be charged by the airline."
In fact, most airlines do post fees, but you have to dig around their websites for them, because bag fees are in one place, frequent flyer ticketing fees in another, pet fees in yet another and so on. Even Europe's fee-happy discount airline Ryanair has had link from its home page to its entire list of fees for as long as we can remember. Time for other airlines to do the same.
Tarmac delay rule extended to international flights
Other than rising airfares, nothing gets a spot on the evening news faster than a nightmarish tarmac delay story. Even so, just a miniscule percentage of passengers ever experience epic confinements, such as the infamous overnight ordeals over the past few years at New York's JFK airport. Even so, this is a good idea and overdue (previous regulations covered tarmac delays only on domestic flights). Airlines and airports are getting their act together and developing strategies to offload those passengers who wish to return to the terminal in the event of long tarmac delays. The airlines hate this rule, but let's remember that it does not require a flight to be cancelled, or even that the plane has to return to the terminal--just that the airline has to let passengers get off the plane if they wish. So if the airline can send a vehicle or stairway to the plane on the tarmac and let passengers off, the rest of the passengers can sit there until forever (or until the crew "times out," whichever comes first).
Then there are some new regulations concerning airline issues that don't make as much news, issues that, frankly, don't get much media attention and that Airfarewatchdog doesn't hear that much griping about. But many airfare consumers will appreciate them nonetheless:
Prompt notification of delays
This rule requires airlines to promptly notify consumers of delays of over 30 minutes, as well as cancellations and diversions. This notification must take place in the boarding gate area, on a carrier’s telephone reservation system and on its website.
Involuntary bumping payment increased
The good news is that a relative few passengers are involuntarily bumped each year (about 65,000 in 2010), so, like the tarmac delay rule, this will apply to a small percentage of travelers. If you're bumped from your flight, current rules require a payment of being $400 and $800, depending on the length of delay in getting you to your destination. The new rules require a payment of between $650 and $1300. Airlines are required to adjust his amount in line with inflation every two years. And they're required to verbally inform you that you can receive this payment by cash or check (no more trying to stick you with a travel voucher). But, even the new maximum won't compensate someone who missed a $10,000 cruise, or forfeited a $5000 vacation and missed two days of work plus other expenses. We would rather have seen some mechanism for passengers who incur enormous financial loss because of a bump situation to get compensated on a case-by-case basis, but that will probably never happen.
Taxes to be included in all advertised fares
Most consumers already realize that airlines and other travel vendors don't advertise all the taxes in their fares, whether these appear in the newspaper, online, or in emails, and it is admittedly annoying, although the media don't make a big deal of this practice when they cover the industry. But we question why the D.O.T. is singling out just the airlines. What about cruise lines, hotels, and rental car agencies? Airlines are going to have a lot of fun dealing with this new rule, in part because some tax-included fares vary depending on how many connections a particular flight makes (a nonstop New York to LA fare will have one tax-included fare, one making two connections will have additional airport taxes).
No more opt-out fees
Another provision, which we agree with wholeheartedly, requires that any add-ons, such as travel insurance, be "opt in" rather than "opt out" (too many airlines require you to uncheck a box on their websites in order to eliminate certain fees. Travel insurance is a particularly obnoxious opt-out fee that you often have to uncheck before making a final purchase.
24-hour fare holds, without payment
Another new rule will require all airlines to allow consumers to hold a fare for 24 hours so they can make a final decision or shop around. In fact, most US-based airlines already allow holds, but (except for American) require payment to do so, and as long as the hold period doesn't conflict with advance purchase fare rules (in other words, if the fare requires a seven day advance purchase and you hold it seven days before the flight, you can't get the same fare 24 hours later, or six days before departure). Only JetBlue and Airtran, of the larger carriers, don't already allow 24-hour fare holds or any kind (JetBlue claims it doesn't offer one because it doesn't overbook flights, and if too many passengers hold reservations that they end up cancelling it plays havoc with a no-bumping business model).
Airfare consumers and airline passengers will like everything about these D.O.T. new rules, unless, of course, the airlines end up raising fares in order to comply with them. And indeed, as the D.O.T. readily admits, these rules will cost the airlines money to implement. It's important to note that these rules are not yet in effect: they'll kick in 120 days after being published in the Federal Register, and we wouldn't be surprised to see the airlines fight some of them.
So this is a good start, but read other regulations we'd like to see.