— Long-awaited passenger protections issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) have been met with mixed reviews by business-travel and consumer advocates who say the new rules are a positive step but don't go far enough.
“It's a major accomplishment,” said Andrew Weinstein, director of Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, a coalition of companies and organizations battling the airline industry over the sharing of ancillary-fee information. But, he added, “we still have a long way to go to our destination.”
“The agency is heading in the right direction,” said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, who hopes to see subsequent rules address the issue of better disclosure of those à la carte fees.
The new rules tackle a variety of issues affecting air travelers, including a four-hour tarmac limit for international flights at U.S. airports, refunds of baggage fees when bags are lost (but not when they’re merely late), full disclosure of additional fees on airline websites and increased compensation when passengers are involuntarily bumped from oversold flights.
“Airline passengers have a right to be treated fairly,” said DOT Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday upon announcing the new rules, which are set to go into effect in August.
Fines, refunds and fair treatment
Weinstein and others want to see airlines make the ancillary fees that are currently available on their proprietary websites more available to the Global Distribution Systems (GDS) that distribute fare information to third-party websites, such as Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity, among others. More than 50 percent of consumers use third-party sites when shopping for travel.
The airlines, not surprisingly, see things differently. “On balance, we believe the rule is reasonable and airlines will comply,” said Victoria Day, managing director of communications for the Air Transport Association.
However, she also said that “compelling airlines to give ancillary data to the government would be nothing more than a boom for two highly profitable [GDS] providers. We believe carriers should be able to negotiate where and at what price they make their products and services available.”
In the meantime, DOT has already let its intentions on the subject be known. As part of its new rule, the agency announced that, in December, it would propose a supplemental rule requiring that ancillary fees be displayed at all points of sale.
“It fulfills a commitment ... to further address concerns about hidden and deceptive fees and allow consumers to price shop for air transportation in an effective manner,” said DOT spokesperson Olivia Alair.
Customer service: benefit or binding obligation?
DOT tabled proposals that would require the airlines to include their customer service plans in their contracts of carriage, a seemingly semantic distinction that may prove to be the most contentious issue of all.
At the simplest level, a customer service plan describes what an airline intends to deliver while a contract of carriage covers what it’s required to deliver. The former is about intent; the latter, a matter of law.
“Right now, if an airline doesn’t keep its promise, consumers can only go to DOT and petition for some sort of redress. They have no legal rights,” said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance.
Incorporating an airline’s customer service plan into its contract of carriage, on the other hand, would make its contents legally enforceable, opening the door to consumer litigation.
Gone to market
Such a change would almost certainly lead to lawsuits over any such rule itself.
The battle would be fierce as it would raise a host of issues, including defining the actual service airlines provide, whether the issue is a regulatory or legislative one and whether such a rule would be regulating customer service, which the airlines contend should be determined by the marketplace.
“Market forces — not additional regulations — are already providing customer benefits,” said Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association, in a statement.
Like many industry observers, George Hobica of AirfareWatchdog.com applauds many of the new rules, but he’d also like to propose another: compensation for schedule changes made long after you’ve bought your ticket.
As Hobica notes, airlines often change flight schedules weeks or months after travelers have made plans that include cruise bookings, hotel reservations and other often-nonrefundable arrangements. As examples, he cites instances where airlines cut back on flight frequencies, leaving travelers on the hook for unused (or extra) hotel nights, and eliminated routes that leave them scrambling for replacement tickets on other carriers at generally higher prices. The airlines, he feels, should make good on those extra costs.
Sometimes, he adds, the change doesn’t even have to entail a pricey new ticket or out-of-pocket expenses: “You buy a nonstop flight but the airline switches you to one making two connections at the same fare — a hamburger is not the same as a filet mignon.”