Newly Proposed Airline Rules To Protect Travelers

Airline travelers will learn a lot more about which carriers are the most punctual, which mishandle the most luggage and which damage the most wheelchairs, under final rules that the Transportation Department unveiled Tuesday.

The reporting rules are final, but take effect Jan. 1, 2018, to give airlines time to comply.

In addition, a new rule will require online travel agents to disclose if they have any bias favoring one airline over another when travelers shop for tickets. The rule goes into effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register.

“The goal is to have a more robust consumer marketplace and create a more competitive environment and better outcomes for fliers,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “Today’s actions are a win for travelers.”

A dozen major airlines, which each carry at least 1% of the 700 million annual travelers, now report flights that arrive at least 15 minutes later than scheduled. The goal of the new rule is to clarify the tardiness of more regional airlines that fly half the flights.

The rule will expand to include airlines carrying at least 0.5% of all travelers, along with any domestic airlines that sell tickets jointly with major airlines. If effective today, it would apply to seven airlines: Air Wisconsin, Allegiant, Endeavor, Mesa, Envoy, Republic and Shuttle America.

The larger airlines now report how many bags are mishandled for total passengers. The new rule will change the standard to mishandled bags out of the total number of checked bags, to be more precise as travelers carry on more luggage.

The new rule will also require the large airlines to report how often they mishandle wheelchairs, which are sometimes damaged in cargo. Some advocates for the disabled say they are reluctant to fly, for fear of damaging expensive motorized wheelchairs.

“Basically the handful of changes are great, but the heavy lifting is yet to come,” said Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, a consumer-advocacy group.

The rules are the most significant consumer protections for aviation travelers in years. The administration seeks to build on earlier consumer protections in 2009, which created large fines for lengthy tarmac delays, and 2011, which forced airlines to post the full price of a ticket with taxes when advertising fares.

The White House promoted the latest rules as a result of President Obama’s executive order in April to spur competition in industries across the economy. Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said the airline rules would give consumers more information and help them understand it.

“This is a perfect example that the president was looking for when he signed the executive order,” Furman said.

Nicholas Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, a trade group for most large carriers, said the industry is among the most transparent in the country. And airlines remain a consumer bargain with fares down 40% from 1979 through 2015 when adjusted for inflation, he said.

“Competition is alive and well in the airline industry, and all pricing information is available to consumer at the click of a button,” Calio said. “Efforts designed to reregulate how airlines distribute their products and services are bad for airline customers, employees, the communities we serve and our overall U.S. economy.”

Left undone were proposals for refunding fees for checked bags and possibly requiring fees for extra services to be included in fares.

The department is publishing an advanced notice about a rule requiring refunds when bags don’t reach their destinations. But the department is asking for public comment about how long a delay deserves a refund, and whether the time should be different for domestic and international flights.

The department also said it would pursue a rulemaking to explore whether fees such as for checked bags, seat assignments and priority boarding should be included in fares.

The unfinished business left heartburn on all sides.

“Unfortunately, all issues have not been resolved even after this long delay,” Leocha said of a long-awaited rule for including ancillary fees in fares.

But Calio, of the airline group, said Congress deregulated the industry in 1978 and carriers should be allowed to compete over services they offer.

“Airlines have different business models and must be allowed to continue offering optional services in a manner that makes sense for both their customers and their business,” Calio said.

 

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