Additional consumer rights coming to US airline passengers

The United States Department of Transportation is changing the rules for airlines again and the news is mostly good for travelers. The most recent set of rules, following on similar changes made in 2009 and 2011, will increase passenger rights and adjust a number of reporting requirements, moves that will provide more transparency in operations data and add categories where travelers are guaranteed refunds on fees charged where airlines do not deliver the product in question. The new regulations take effect on 1 January 2018.

On Time Performance

On time rates today are reported to the DOT based on the operating carrier, not the marketing airline. A “Delta” flight operated by Shuttle America is not the same to the DOT as a Delta flight operated by Delta. But for a passenger no difference exists. The entire transaction appears to be direct with Delta: The tickets stay Delta, the credit card charge is from Delta, the agents at the airport wear Delta uniforms and name tags and the paint job on the plane says Delta. Yet a delay or cancellation of a Shuttle America flight would not show up in the stats for Delta’s operations. This week’s announcement changes that policy.

STOP AIRLINES FROM DATA CHERRY-PICKING: Require the big U.S. airlines to report performance for any plane that flies under their banner – ensuring that the large carriers have to faithfully report on all domestic flights under their brand, not just the ones they select. To meet this goal, the new rule will require the big airlines to report data for flights of their domestic code-share partners (i.e. flights by generally smaller, regional airlines that are sold under the brand of the larger airline) to make these airline performance reports more complete.

The DOT historically limited the reporting requirement to larger airlines which meant that some small regional operators were not included in the stats. The new ruling will force those unreported airlines into the data set.

This change will have a significant impact on Delta & American Airlines. United Airlines started reporting consolidated operations performance last year but the DOT reports have not included those numbers in its reports. Alaska Airlines also has regional operators which will be included in the new ruling. On time will still be anything up to 14 minutes late, but at least now travelers will have a better view of what is happening with the airline they are buying tickets on, even when the flight operation is outsourced.

Not surprisingly the carriers with these operations opposed the change of reporting policies; those without regional carrier partners supported the change as did most consumer rights groups.

Lost & Delayed Luggage

Baggage delivery delays will see two changes, one ensuring that travelers get what they pay for and another updating the data collected about such efforts.

Passengers facing baggage delivery delays will now be entitled to a refund of ay checked bag fees paid. Previously the refund requirement only applied if the bags were lost, not just delayed. Most airlines already had such policies but codifying it ensures that passengers are protected across the board.

More significantly, the data side of things will see an update. Lost & delayed bags today are reported in terms of incidents per enplaned passengers. That metric may have made sense when first implemented but it is archaic today. The relevant number is how many bags are lost or delayed compared to the total number accepted by the airline. In other words, airlines will have to report what is actually happening with bags in a manner far more relevant to the passenger choosing to check that bag.

Other Bits

The DOT is adding requirements for reporting on lost or mishandled wheelchairs and requiring disclosure if a commercial agreement exists to bias search results. It is also considering prohibition of restricting fares to certain booking interfaces or sites. Finally, the DOT is looking in to further options with respect to requiring disclosure of fees as part of full price advertising requirements, hoping to end the “surprise” passengers experience at the airport or even in later steps of the checkout process. These changes are less significant for the broader travel market but still important with respect to consumer protection.

Alas, the DOT has held short of forcing any real consumer protection for flight delays, akin to the EU261 rules that apply in Europe. And that is likely far more significant than these other changes which are being implemented. But baby steps towards more consumer rights should be well received by travelers.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. All of this sounds fine to me, but I wish regulators would take a better look at hotels first. If airlines have to include taxes, which obviously we don’t get to keep, in the fares we display, then why do hotels not have to include the resort fees that they do get to keep? If it’s not optional and applies to everyone, it’s part of the rate. Nevermind the taxes that they also don’t have to include.

  2. I can count on one hand, with digits to spare, the folks I know who base their air travel purchase decisions on any of these factors. Good for those of us avgeeks who love the granularity of it all but mostly lipstick on the pig as to the “average Joe flyer”…

    1. Most travelers book on price or schedule. This doesn’t change any of that. But it does prevent airlines from hiding their performance woes by outsourcing the operations. For the instances where it doesn’t matter, well, it still doesn’t matter. But for anyone who cares having the better data details is a very good thing.

      And, like it or not, the data from the DoT reports does get relatively widely shared as a proxy for airline quality. So it does appear in broader media, eventually trickling down to the “average Joe” passengers. Whether they act on it or not, they are more likely to hear about it from time to time.

    2. I do make decisions based on ontime performance, but when doibg so this is down at the individual flight level. At the high leve(i.e. “what carrier will i fly 100 flights on this year), or the corporate level – i think the numbers get a bit more play.

      Most individual consumer choices are price and schedule, but reliability (and having more accurate numbers to represent this) is not completely ignored.

  3. I don’t think airlines were hiding their performance woes. The only instance where regional codeshare partners get neglected is during ATC & weather-related irregular operations, when schedules need to be thinned out. Logically, the 50-seat RJ is going to be cancelled before the mainline 182-seat 757, for example, as that will inconvenience fewer people. (Also many of the regional jets and turboprops aren’t equipped with low-visibility navigation equipment)

    In general, more regulation is never good. I don’t think these new rules cause any huge problems for the airlines, though. The example of how hotels are not regulated is a great one. People (notably, our elected officials) for some reason view airlines as commodities, as opposed to private businesses, and treat them as such. When you see hotels screwing guests over daily with their non-transparent policies and ridiculous fees, you realize how the airlines got a raw deal. You really begin to see and understand the red tape when you work in airline ops.

  4. The DOT rep on FT touched on a comment about seat pitch:

    I agree that regulation of seat size isn’t necessary (at this time), but I wonder what effect it might have to require airlines and OTAs to display the seat width and seat pitch (or, more accurately, leg room, since pitch doesn’t reflect differences in seat thickness).

    Market forces can dictate what carriers provide, but that only really works if consumers are able to easily compare the products. If they see that Spirit has a $49 fare (plus a $9 “convenience fee” and a $35 carry-on fee) and 28″ of pitch and American has a $79 fare with 32″ of pitch and no convenience or carry-on fees, it makes it much easier for the average consumer to see through Spirit’s game and recognize that American will provide a better product at a similar overall price. Currently, people have to go out of their way to research these fees and be aware of them; if they had to be shown during the comparison shopping and booking flow, it would give people the tools to make an educated shopping decision.

    Thing is, I doubt something like that would ever come to fruition naturally. The OTAs don’t care enough to add that functionality, and the carriers like Spirit that stand to lose from it have no incentive to build that type of functionality into their GDS or XML direct-connect links. The only way something like that would happen, I fear, is if regulations required it to happen…

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