Will New Airline Consumer Protection Rules Help When You Fly This Summer?

Christopher Elliot


You've probably heard about the new airline consumer protection rules that rolled out with a one-two punch last month. There were so many, it's almost hard to keep track. And maybe you're saying to yourself: Finally, I'll have some rights when I fly.


Please, don't get too excited.


"It's a good start," says Anthony Radchenko, CEO of AirAdvisor, a company that helps consumers file airline complaints.


The new rules address everything from junk fees to refunds, and although they may have some unintended consequences, they could help passengers -- but probably not in time for the summer travel season.



What did the government do?

Here's what's new:


Two new consumer protection rules. The Department of Transportation released final versions of two new rules to protect passengers. One requires airlines to quickly and automatically refund tickets when they cancel or significantly delay your flight. The other makes airlines disclose any fees for checked or carry-on luggage, as well as for changing or canceling a reservation, at the same time they display a fare quote. 


States will handle some airline complaints. The federal government also announced a partnership with 18 state attorneys general. The agreement allows states to investigate airlines and ticket agents and hold them accountable when they violate aviation consumer protection laws.


New refund laws and minimum seat sizes. The final version of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill contains a new rule that would require airlines to refund a domestic flight if it's delayed more than three hours. For international flights, it's six hours. It prohibits airlines from charging fees for families to sit together. Also on deck: a requirement that the FAA take another look at minimum seat sizes.


The new DOT rules go into effect in late June but have an implementation period of 6 to 12 months. And some, like the seat standards, might never happen. So don't expect to see new junk fees disclosed or to get a lightning-fast refund this summer. Next summer, maybe.



Turbulent skies ahead for new consumer protections

At least one of the rules may backfire, warn travel experts. Among the consumer protections is a requirement that a merchant of record must issue a refund for an airline ticket. That means unless you booked a ticket directly with the airline, your travel advisor -- not the airline -- would be responsible for a prompt ticket refund. In other words, the money would come out of your advisor's pocket and then force the agent to negotiate with the airline for the money.


"I'm already seeing travel advisors who had been providing flight booking services to their clients, who are now choosing not to offer that service," says travel advisor Brandi Taylor. "This will be a major inconvenience to consumers." 


So this summer, if you're booking a trip through a travel advisor, they might tell you to buy the airline tickets yourself. They don't want to be on the hook for refunding the money your airline has already received for your flights.


That's not the only problem. There's a conflict between the FAA bill and DOT’s new rule requiring automatic cash refunds for flight cancellations and delays. Congress doesn't want the refund to be automatic. Bill McGee, a senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project, says a lot of money is at stake in unpaid refunds.


"Airline lobbyists are fighting tooth and nail to ensure the onus remains on consumers to jump through hoops, rather than having carriers issue automatic refunds," he says. "The DOT has stepped up to protect passengers. Now it's time for Congress to do the same."


Asked about which rules would take precedence in the event of a conflict, a DOT spokeswoman said the agency's rule is "solidly rooted in DOT’s legal authority." So if there's a conflict, the DOT rule would prevail. (Late last week, it appeared Congress was poised to adopt language to allow for automatic refunds under certain circumstances.)



Will these consumer rules really help you?

"I'm skeptical," says Steven Rothberg, the founder of a job search site in Edina, Minn.


Like many experienced air travelers, he's seen this kind of thing before. The government promises protections, people get excited -- and then there's no meaningful follow-through. 


Take seat sizes, for example. Airline seats are too small for the average passenger. So in 2018, Congress required the FAA to set minimum seat sizes. But to this day, there is no minimum seat standard, forcing air travelers to wedge themselves into tiny economy class seats. 


There are worries that airlines will also find a quick way around all these new rules, leaving passengers unprotected.


Travelers have every reason to be concerned. Airlines are clever and often find ways around new government rules. For example, if the government requires the disclosure of a junk fee like baggage charges, airlines will come up with a new charge not covered by the regulation to make up for it. It's a cat-and-mouse game, and the airlines always seem to have the upper hand. 



When will the new consumer rules go into effect?

So what's likely to happen? In the short term, not much.


Jonathan Feniak, a frequent traveler and attorney, says airlines will stall for as long as possible.


"I don’t expect airlines to adopt the new rules until they absolutely have to," he says. "Especially during one of their busiest seasons, when delays and cancellations are bound to happen."


He says some forward-looking airlines may decide to adopt some of the requirements early, but it will also take some time for passengers to learn about their new rights.


On balance, he says the changes are a significant upgrade.


"It will mean fewer passengers being taken advantage of," he says.


A problem of enforcement

Here's the trouble with the new rules: There's some doubt the government will effectively enforce them. 


The Department of Transportation (DOT), which is in charge of enforcing the existing consumer rules, hasn't issued an enforcement action since December. It's one of the longest stretches of time without such action in years.


Think of enforcement actions as traffic tickets. And now there's a perception that airlines can get away with anything, according to Radchenko of AirAdvisor. Out of almost 300 complaints he filed in the last year, he says  DOT has not made any decision or issued enforcement action.


In order for the new rules to work, he says the government must have prescribed penalties for airlines that ignore or fail to comply with such rules.


"They also need to provide the right to recover attorney's fees and legal costs for consumers bringing a lawsuit against an airline," he says.



What do we really need?

The bottom line for passengers is that almost none of the consumer protections will help make your summer flight better. It may even be too soon for your Thanksgiving flight, and if there's a change of administration this November, some of these rules may never be implemented.


The gold standard for consumer protection, at least according to consumer advocates, is a rule in Europe called EC 261. It requires airlines to assist passengers and compensate them when they're denied boarding or their flights are canceled or delayed.


For now, you have the same rights you always did when you fly in the U.S., which is to say, not that many. 


Author Bio:

Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here.


Highbrow Magazine


Photo Credits: Depositphotos.com



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