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.
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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