Will new consumer protections improve U.S. air travel?

September 15, 2011

You don’t have to convince Scott Convery, a computer programmer from New York, that U.S. airline travelers could use some support.

He and his wife boarded a plane in Chicago this summer after attending a wedding and expected to be back at LaGuardia Airport by within two hours of their 12:40 p.m. departure. Just as they were approaching New York, the passengers were told weather issues would require them to go into a holding pattern, but they didn’t have the fuel to do that so they were going to land at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.

After landing at Dulles, about every 45 minutes, Convery said, the passengers were told the flight was on hold for another 45 minutes. The entire time, he said, the plane just sat there on the ground, with all the passengers still inside. Finally, after four hours on the ground, the plane headed back to New York and finally arrived after 9 p.m., eight hours after their departure. 

“We were just stuck in our seats. It was really, really unpleasant,” Convery says. “I’ve been flying forever and I’ve always heard about these stories. We could have taken the train and gotten home sooner.”

With the backdrop of airlines losing their passengers’ luggage and nightmarish tales of passengers like Convery’s of being trapped on airport tarmacs for hours, the federal government has instituted new consumer protections intended to help wary sky warriors.

“The Department of Transportation’s new passenger protections will help ensure that air travelers receive the respect they deserve before, during and after their flight,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, announcing the rules late last month.

What’s supposed to be different now speaks to how bad the situation can get:

  • Airlines are now required to refund the fee paid to put a bag on a plane, if they lose the bag.
  • Airlines have to make clear disclosure of the add-on fees on their websites for everything from reservation changes to luggage to food.
  • Airlines now must pay double the one-way price of passenger’s ticket (up to $650) to passengers bumped involuntary from an overbooked domestic flight who have to wait up to 2 hours, and quadruple the price if the wait is longer.

Consumer advocates like these changes.

“This president and this DOT, for the first time in history, have taken seriously the plight of the flying public and are passing smart regulations that are meaningful to consumers,” said Kate Hanni, director of FlyersRights.org. There’s more to be done, though, she added. Her group would like to see the DOT address issues such as ancillary fees and transparency of costs. Other lingering concerns that need to be addressed include putting a cap on the number of passengers whose seats can be double-sold along with minimum standards for legroom — for safety reasons.

In addition to the recent changes, the DOT also tightened an existing rule to prohibit long tarmac waits. The limit is now three hours on any domestic flight at any American airport. Airlines must provide food, water and working toilets. There are some exceptions to the rule, however, and ways airlines can try to avoid it, such as pulling to a gate but not actually telling anyone they could get off (which is what happened during Convery’s four-hour wait).

The ban on long waits went into effect in April 2010 and reduced the number of delays of three hours or more from 693 to 20 in the year following, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released this week. The reduction, however, appears to be correlated with a large increase in cancellations that occurred as wait times grew. It is also might have been temporary, since 30 more long waits were documented in the two months following the year period with only 20. As of this summer, no airline had yet had to pay the fine for violating the rule, which carries a fine of up $27,500 per incident.

In addition, starting in January all advertised fares must include taxes and fees, price increases won’t be able to be passed along after a ticket is purchased, and, among other changes, passengers must be told of any delay of more than 30 minutes.

Chris Elliott, a consumer advocate who specializes in travel issues, said he particularly likes the new rules (and those coming) that put ticket prices under the microscope.

“The thing that’s really going to affect customers the most has to do with fare transparency,” he said. “Just disclosing the additional fees is going to have a pretty big impact.”

The way it has been for airlines, consumers could see a price that appeared to be low but didn’t include fees for bags or even reserving a seat.

“They’re taking everything out of the fare to make it look as cheap as possible,” said Elliott, who is ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler.

He’s not optimistic the lost bag refund requirement will prompt carriers to deliver your luggage, but data analyzing the impact of the new rule should be available by the end of year.

While the hope is that the friendly skies will, indeed, be friendlier again to consumers, only time will tell. And there’s a lot of bad feelings to overcome.

Six weeks after Convery’s experience, he’s still bitter and has no plans to use the airline vouchers he was sent after he complained about being stuck in a plane all day.

“I don’t think it was humane, whatsoever,” he said.

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