DOT proposes new reimbursement rules for airlines in the chaos of travel

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The Department of Transportation has proposed new rules to better protect travelers in the event their flight is delayed, canceled or otherwise significantly altered, a response to the “flood of complaints about air travel services” the department has received since the coronavirus pandemic began, he said in a press release.

By defining when a flight can be considered canceled or significantly changed, the proposal aims to fill a gap in the Department of Transportation’s ability to prevent what it considers unfair practices in the transport sector and to force carriers to reimburse consumers it claims to be victims of these practices.

If approved, it would be “the biggest expansion of traveler rights in decades,” Scott Keyes, founder of a website that helps travelers find cheap flightshe told the Washington Post.

So what does it mean to you?

What are the proposed rules?

Under the proposal, which is subject to a 90-day public consultation period, airlines and ticket offices should reimburse consumers when they change their flights “significantly”.

This would apply to domestic flights with a delay of three or more hours or to international flights with a delay of six or more hours. It would also apply if the departure or arrival airport is changed, if extra connections are added, or if the class of service or aircraft type is changed, for example by downgrading someone from business class to economy class or putting them on an aircraft with fewer services than expected.

If a carrier posted a flight in its online booking system when the ticket was sold but ultimately failed to operate the flight for any reason, it would be considered canceled under the new rules.

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“When Americans buy a plane ticket, they should get to their destination safely, reliably and conveniently,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in the press release. “This proposed new rule would protect travelers’ rights and help ensure they get the timely reimbursements they deserve from airlines.”

The new rules would also require airlines to issue credits with no expiration date to ticket holders who decide not to travel because they are ill or because of government travel restrictions including, for example, the imposition of a quarantine obligation for passengers. arriving. In the case of airlines that will receive future government bailouts, the rule would require them to issue refunds rather than credits.

But there are restrictions. For example, if someone books a flight but new public health restrictions are subsequently imposed that would make the trip “meaningless”, that person will be entitled to a voucher or credit with no expiry date. But if someone doesn’t check what’s needed for travel, such as PCR tests, and isn’t able to go, they won’t be eligible.

How do they differ from the current rules?

Under current regulations, travelers to and from the United States are already entitled to a refund if their flight is canceled or significantly delayed and they choose not to choose another option, or if they are unintentionally downgraded to a lower level of service. than what you paid for.

But because the Department of Transportation doesn’t define a “significant delay,” in practice, whether travelers were eligible for a refund depended on many factors “including the length of the delay, the length of the flight,” and individual circumstances, he said. If a complaint is filed, the case-by-case process for the department to determine if a refund is needed takes a long time, it warns consumers.

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The lack of clarity as to what constitutes a canceled or significantly delayed flight has led to “inconsistencies among carriers as to when passengers are entitled to refunds,” the Department of Transportation said in the press release. The inconsistency has benefited carriers, who could expansively define significant delays so as to avoid having to reimburse travelers, Keyes argues. “Two hours might be a big deal to me, but it might mean nothing to the airlines,” she said.

In the meantime, passengers who choose not to travel because they are sick or are particularly vulnerable to illness are generally not protected by current regulations. For this reason, sick people who could infect others, or those who are particularly at risk of becoming seriously ill, can choose to travel anyway so as not to lose the money spent on the ticket. “These kinds of consumer actions are not in the public interest,” the department said.

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When would it take effect?

The regulation proposed by the Department of Transportation still has some time before it can be enacted. At the end of the 90-day public consultation period, the department will review the comments and decide whether to continue with the proposed rule as is, amend or withdraw it.

Anyone can post a comment, including companies that would be affected by the rule. Airlines will probably “try to improve [the proposed rules] from an industry standards perspective, “says Keyes. If the rules are enacted, companies can apply for an exemption, which the department will only consider if it detects” unique circumstances not considered during regulation. “

What are my rights if my flight is delayed now?

Travelers reported an increase in travel problems this summer – from canceled or delayed flights to lost baggage and strikes – as many countries loosened or lifted all pandemic-related restrictions, leading to increased demand and airports and airlines. they have not been able to cope.

Nearly 550,000 flights were delayed this year in the United States, according to Department of Transportation data, more than double such flights in all of 2021. More than 88,000 flights were canceled, or about 3.2% of all flights. flights, compared to less than 1.6% of flights last year.

If your flight is one of these, the current rules still apply. For a flight arriving or departing from the United States, you are entitled to a refund if your flight is canceled or significantly delayed and you choose not to choose another option. It also applies if you are unintentionally downgraded to a lower level service than what you paid for.

How to get refunds from an airline if your flight is canceled

You are also entitled to compensation if you were denied boarding because your flight was overbooked and you did not volunteer to give up your seat. Airlines can overbook flights, and there’s no minimum they have to offer when they ask travelers if anyone is willing to take a later flight. Passengers reported that airlines offered thousands of dollars to people who volunteered to be turned away from their flights.

If you are unintentionally bumped, airlines should provide you with a form detailing your compensation rights, which is often linked to when you arrive at your final destination. Please note that most airlines require you to be registered or at the gate by a certain time in order to be eligible for compensation beyond the cost of the flight.

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