Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Airline Passenger Rights: Law or Customer Service?

Here we go again.  Nowhere fast.

In 2007, hundreds of airline passengers were stranded aboard nine JetBlue Airways airplanes on the snow-covered tarmac of New York’s JFK International Airport for almost 10 hours.  A week later, 220 Colorado-bound passengers aboard United Express airplanes were diverted overnight to Wyoming; they were shocked the next day to see the flight crew leaving without them.  Earlier, on December 29, 2006, American Airlines passengers sat on airplanes for hours in Austin, Texas.  “We turned into animals,” one passenger said of the conditions she endured.  The customer experience on on-time flights has been only marginally better as some carriers impose charges for previously free items like checked baggage, legroom, seat assignments, peanuts, and bathroom use. 

Unsurprisingly, air travelers and lawmakers have reached a tipping point when it comes to airline service and are invigorated to revisit and complete efforts begun in 1999 to fortify enforceable federal rights for airline passengers.

Specifically, just this past week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced new airline passenger "protections" -

Lost Bags and Bag Fees. Airlines will now be required to refund any fee for carrying a bag if the bag is lost.  Airlines will also be required to apply the same baggage allowances and fees for all segments of a trip, including segments with interline and code share partners.  Airlines are already required to compensate passengers for reasonable expenses for loss, damage or delay in the carriage of passenger baggage. 

Full Disclosure of Additional Fees.  Airlines will have to prominently disclose all potential fees on their websites, including but not limited to fees for baggage, meals, canceling or changing reservations, or advanced or upgraded seating.   In addition, airlines and ticket agents will be required to refer passengers both before and after purchase to up-to-date baggage fee information, and to include all government taxes and fees in every advertised price.  Previously, government taxes and fees were not required to be included in the up-front fare quotation.  

Bumping.  The amount of money passengers are eligible to be compensated for in the event they are involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight is doubled.  Currently, bumped passengers are entitled to cash compensation equal to the value of their tickets, up to $400, if the airline is able to get them to their destination within a short period of time (i.e., within 1 to 2 hours of their originally scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and 1 to 4 hours of their originally scheduled arrival time for international flights). 

Bumped passengers are currently entitled to double the price of their tickets, up to $800, if they are delayed for a lengthy period of time (i.e., over two hours after their originally scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and over 4 hours after their originally scheduled arrival time for international flights). 

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.  Inflation adjustments will be made to those compensation limits every two years.

Tarmac Delays. The new rule expands the existing ban on lengthy tarmac delays to cover foreign airlines’ operations at U.S. airports and establishes a four hour hard time limit on tarmac delays for international flights of U.S. and foreign airlines, with exceptions allowed only for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons.   Carriers must also ensure that passengers stuck on the tarmac are provided adequate food and water after two hours, as well as working lavatories and any necessary medical treatment.

The extended tarmac delays experienced by passengers on international flights operated by foreign carriers at New York’s JFK Airport during the December 2010 blizzard was an important factor in the Department’s decision to extend the tarmac delay provisions to foreign air carriers and establish a four hour tarmac delay limit for international flights.

All of these protections seem helpful on their face, but query whether these matters are more in the nature of customer service issues than issues for legal adjudication and regulation.

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