Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Winging It: LaHood gets serious with new rules for airlines

The federal government has gotten the message: People who fly have a long list of complaints about airline service and simply asking the worst offenders to treat their customers better isn't working.

The federal government has gotten the message: People who fly have a long list of complaints about airline service and simply asking the worst offenders to treat their customers better isn't working.

That's why Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood last week announced proposed consumer-protection rules that surprised even me in the number of separate, seemingly minor annoyances they will try to fix. The rules would take effect after a six-month comment period.

Among other things, the regulations would increase compensation if you're bumped from an oversold flight, require better disclosure fees that affect the total price of a ticket, allow cancellation within 24 hours of a ticket already paid for, and prohibit price changes once a ticket is issued.

The proposals come just after the adoption of tough standards by the federal regulators for how airline customers must be treated during flight delays of three hours or more on airport airfields.

The number of long delays declined this spring, even before the rule took effect April 29, although it's not clear whether the reduction is related to better weather or airlines' changing their practices.

The most welcome proposal from the federal regulators would make airlines prominently disclose their fees for checked bags and establish procedures for reimbursement if bags are delayed or lost.

Information on fees for bags and other services is on airline websites, but it's often hard to find and may not be shown as part of the final cost when purchasing a ticket.

"These are the things people get irritated about," LaHood said in announcing the rules. "They charge you for a bag. They lose the bag and you have no recourse. Anybody who flies regularly has a horror story."

More information about the cost to check bags would certainly have helped Sharon and Jerry Banfe of Winslow Township, who didn't know when they bought one-way tickets recently from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Philadelphia that US Airways would charge for their luggage.

Sharon Banfe told me last week that she chose to fly to Philadelphia, which is less convenient for her, rather than using Spirit Airlines to Atlantic City because she knew about Spirit's plans to charge for carry-on bags. But she said she didn't see any indication of US Airways' bag fee when she used Travelocity to book the $100-apiece tickets.

"If your price is really $150, then tell me it's $150," she said. "Don't wait until I get to the ticket counter to tell me."

The Air Transport Association, the airlines' major trade group, said it would study the proposed rules and comment on them.

The inability of travelers to determine in advance what a trip is actually going to cost is only part of the problem fees have created.

Corporate travel managers and the travel agencies they use complain that airlines adopted so many fees over the last two years that companies no longer are able to keep track of everything their travelers are spending.

Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, says airlines, travel agencies, and companies that run the big mainframe computers used to book and pay for tickets are scrambling to develop better fee-tracking systems. The travel managers hope to see testing of the new systems by this fall, he said.

LaHood said in last week's announcement that the new regulations on fee transparency would apply not only to airline websites and those of online travel services such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, but also to the computer systems used by travel agencies.

Both the new set of proposed rules and the one governing long flight delays at airports are examples of a long-overdue aggressiveness on part of regulators to make airlines treat customers better.

For more than a decade, airlines fended off efforts in Congress to set hard-and-fast rules for passenger comfort when weather or other factors keep planes stranded on the ground.

LaHood ran out of patience with the airlines' vows to behave better after last summer's incident at Rochester, Minn., when a regional jet with 49 passengers aboard was stuck for six hours a few feet from the terminal.

The airlines fought the delay rules largely by warning that they could lead to more flight cancellations, making bad situations even worse because it could take days to reschedule passengers on other flights.

Whether that happens or not, I will be eager to see the reports the Transportation Department issues each month on airline operations and delays.

In its report for April, released last week, only four flights out of more than 529,000 scheduled were delayed for more than three hours. Overall delays were below average in the month because of relatively good weather. And airfield delays of three-plus hours are always much lower when snow or thunderstorms aren't threatening, the monthly reports show.

The real test of the delay rules and how airlines will deal with them could come this summer. In rain-soaked June 2009, almost 300 flights sat on the airfield for three hours or more.

Comments from the public on last week's proposals can be made at a website ( run by Cornell University for the Transportation Department.