5 Things New Airline Passenger Protections Will Not Do for You

New Airline Passenger Protections

I’m sure you saw the news reports about the Department of Transportation expanding the new Passenger Protection rules, and I welcome much of this as simple common sense.

And I must say, activist Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is in there fighting for all of us passengers, which is especially important since a long awaited Airline Passenger Bill of Rights doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. However, I feel I must point out a few areas where these “protections” fall short.

Here’s my take on the shortcomings in five areas of the protection provisions: tarmac delays; bumping compensation; pricing transparency; 24 hour hold for tickets; and especially the new baggage fee refunds. Let’s see what works and what doesn’t.

5 Things Airline Passenger Protections Won’t Do

Take a look, and tell me if I’ve left anything out, on the FareCompare Facebook page.

1. Bag fee refunds may be too little, too late

This sounds good: the airlines are required to reimburse your checked-baggage fee if they lose your bag. Some airlines already do this, if you put in a claim, but it’s important to note that “one man’s delayed bag is another man’s lost luggage”. In other words, how long must a bag go missing before it’s considered “lost”? The rules don’t say. What do you say: is your bag as good as gone if it’s been AWOL for a day, a week, a month?

Important note: the airline’s compensation for the contents of your missing bag remains unchanged, but don’t expect to collect if you had an iPad or jewelry or important papers or even cash in the bag; most airlines don’t cover any of that. Indeed, you are breaking the rules of some carriers, such as American Airlines, if you pack such any such valuables in a checked-bag.

Remember, keep all valuables on your person, never in a bag (remember, when bin space is at a premium, even your carryon may be checked).

2. The 3 hour rule on tarmac delays may not save you time

It was a good idea; instituting a 3 hour cap to the time a plane could spend idling on the tarmac, thereby avoiding some of those nightmare air travel scenarios where folks were stuck on planes with dwindling supplies of food and water, and sometimes even overflowing toilets. Now this rule has been extended to international airlines albeit with an additional hour added. After all, says DOT official, it’s working. Or is it?

Yes, violations of the 3 hour rule have become rare; however, a study released last month suggested the number of canceled flights jumped last year and some (or even many) may be blamed on airlines canceling proactively to avoid the heavy fines levied for flouting the 3 hour rule.

In this day and age of near-full capacity planes, a canceled flight can be a nightmarish inconvenience as there just isn’t anywhere to put out of luck passengers.

3. Don’t expect to win big with involuntary bumping fees

Maybe you heard that if you are what is called “involuntarily bumped” from your flight, you’ll get up to $1,300. It’s true, but note the phrase “up to”. Depending on the length of the delay you’re subjected to, your compensation may “only” be up to $650. Still, it’s an improvement.

But say you’ve been bumped off a flight which cost you $250, and you take the inconvenience cash and refund on your ticket and decide run to another airline to get to your destination; that last minute walk-up fare could cost you in the neighborhood of $800 or more.

4. Pricing transparency may not be transparent enough for some

Can’t disagree with the DOT’s new provision mandating more transparency on pricing and fees, though some feel at this point everyone knows about bag fees and such. I disagree, and I suspect no amount of transparency will be enough for some.

After all, consider how long we’ve had the 3.4 ounce rule for liquids in effect; and yet, how often do we see folks going through security carrying a liter bottle of water? Some people just do not bother reading, even the not-so-fine-print, especially on the web.

There may not be enough monitor-screen real estate to fully disclose today’s sushi menu-like array of optional fees – let alone on those tiny smart-phone displays which most of us will be thumbing in the years to come. And more fees will be coming, count on it.

However, if we can just get the online agencies and airlines to quit putting their base airfare prices in bold face and their total prices (including all taxes and fees) in teeny-tiny print my bifocals will be happy.

5. 24 hour hold on tickets will save you from hauling out your credit card – or will it?

According to the DOT, all airlines will be required to “allow reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or cancelled without penalty, for at least 24 hours after the reservation is made” but – must you put down a credit card or not? If you must (which all online booking sites require today), well – a lot of airlines already allow for a hold.

Still, the big question is, will your card be dinged immediately, then refunded within 24 hours? Or will the refund come along in say, the second or third billing cycle? As I noted, while many airlines already have this 24 hour rule (though at least one has a four hour “cooling off” period), I’d hesitate to book four different flight options and cancel three of them if it meant you wouldn’t be seeing your money for a few months.

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Published: May 20, 2011