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Biden administration drafting airline passenger protection rules

Congress has offered legislation with similar goals

 Southwest Airlines' schedule meltdown in December prompted a flurry of legislation.
Southwest Airlines' schedule meltdown in December prompted a flurry of legislation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Biden administration is writing new regulations to ensure passengers are compensated for flight delays and cancellations caused by airlines as Congress considers legislation with similar goals.

The rules haven’t been officially proposed but were announced with few details on Monday. They would require airlines to provide compensation, meal vouchers, overnight accommodations, ground transportation to and from a hotel, rebooking and timely customer service during and after flight delays and cancellations that are under the airlines’ control.

“When an airline causes a flight cancellation or delay, passengers should not foot the bill,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “This rule would, for the first time in U.S. history, propose to require airlines to compensate passengers and cover expenses such as meals, hotels, and rebooking in cases where the airline has caused a cancellation or significant delay.”   

Lawmakers in Congress have been pressing the Federal Aviation Administration to address passenger protections after what critics have called a Southwest Airlines Co. “meltdown” in December when delays and cancellations stranded thousands of passengers across the country during the holiday season. 

The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on passenger protections in March, setting up conversations for an FAA reauthorization bill that’s due this year. Aside from fair compensation, the panel’s chair, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and other Democrats have also called on airlines to nix “junk fees” for things like family seating.

“We should force the rebooking fees [to end], when your flight is canceled or delayed by the airline itself, and stop that practice,” she said in the March hearing. “We should make sure that families aren’t charged just for sitting next to each other at the very beginning of a flight when there are many flight options.”

A group of Democrats led by Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts have already introduced two bills that expand compensation for air passengers.

One includes provisions that would require airlines to pay at least $1,350 to passengers denied boarding as a result of an oversold flight as well as mandate airlines to immediately refund fees for damaged or lost bags. The other would prohibit airlines from charging “unreasonably high fees” for services like checked bags, seat selection and ticket changes. 

“I commend the Department of Transportation for taking up my proposal to require airlines to compensate passengers when they cause a significant flight delay or cancellation,” Markey said in a statement Monday. “For too long, passengers have borne the cost of the airlines’ mistakes — totaling over 38 million minutes in 2022 alone. The new rule will hold the airlines accountable for these flight disruptions and help stop the financial exploitation of air travelers.”

FAA reauthorization

Cantwell has already said she intends to include a “passengers’ bill of rights” in the FAA reauthorization package, adding that she supports full funding and staffing for the Transportation Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection to make the provisions “stick.”

The FAA’s authorization expires on Sept. 30.

Blumenthal’s legislation also includes a provision that would direct DOT to write rules similar to what Buttigieg and President Joe Biden announced. Lawmakers could include it in the FAA reauthorization bill to codify DOT’s responsibility to address passenger protections, but it’s still not clear to what extent Republicans on the Commerce panel, including ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, support pricing regulations.

Cruz has warned against “regulatory overreach” in FAA reauthorization talks and argued that regulating prices would in turn drive up costs for passengers as airlines incur costs from nixing extra fees and pass them on to consumers via higher fares.

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, added in a statement Monday that the majority of flight cancellations in 2023 have been due to circumstances outside of airlines’ control, like weather conditions, and that carriers “take responsibility for challenges in their control” and are working to improve reliability. 

“We look forward to working with the administration to ensure U.S. airspace remains the safest airspace in the world while supporting robust marketplace competition that provides transparency and vast options for consumers,” the group said in a statement.

Biden offered praise for airlines as he announced the coming rules, noting that some have already started to change policies around refunds for delays. 

“Now nine major airlines cover hotels, 10 cover meals, 10 rebook for free, and that’s a real savings for middle-class and working-class families,” Biden said. “For example, to rebook, fees could run as high as $200 per ticket. Now you don’t have to pay anything to rebook for most airlines.”

Aside from the forthcoming rule, DOT has also launched a website and expanded its customer service dashboard to provide more transparency about the types of compensation airlines currently guarantee when they cause flight irregularities.

A DOT spokesperson said the agency is working “expeditiously” to issue a proposal but did not elaborate on a timeline for its introduction.

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