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Reviews | Federal government makes two changes to airline travel rules

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Bill Saporito is the editor of Inc. magazine.

Back in the glamorous days of air travel, that is, before we all became cargo – carriers had to comply with the little-known rule 240. This rule stated that if, for example, your Trans World Airlines flight from New York to Los Angeles was delayed four hours and Pan Am had room for an earlier departure, TWA had to revalidate your ticket on Pan Am. only problem was: you had to know the rule.

Carriers haven’t exactly publicized the existence of Rule 240 and die-hard flyers have kept it to themselves, along with their official pocket airline guides – the monthly pocket book of scheduled flights we depended on before the internet. .

Rule 240 faded with airline deregulation, and in 2020 the Department of Transportation allowed each carrier to write its own individual contract of carriage regarding cancellations, rebookings, and refunds. It was like giving electric utilities the right to set their own emission standards.

Today, of course, Pan Am, TWA, and bulky OAGs are all gone. We can use our smartphones to find out all about current and future flights instantly. But this is almost useless information. There are limited alternatives when flights are canceled or delayed due to weather, labor shortages or air traffic control. This is because airlines, in the name of maximizing capacity, have few spare jets on hand for backups.

The bottom line is, well, what happened this summer, which the Department of Transportation says featured “an unacceptable level of flight delays and cancellations.” Passengers have been stranded for days at airports, or spent hours waiting in long lines, or found themselves stranded in customer service, after flights were delayed, canceled or rescheduled.

After months of chewing on carriers, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is finally laying down the law. Or, at least, establish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that aims to expedite refunds to passengers when carriers cancel or delay flights, in part by defining what, exactly, constitutes an unacceptable cancellation or delay.

It’s a good decision, as far as it goes. The NPRM will define a “cancelled flight” as a flight which is “published in the carrier’s computer reservation system at the time of ticket sale but which is not operated by the carrier”. Which could mean almost anything, but in practice should mean that if a flight is canceled or departs three or more hours late, then passengers are entitled to a refund within seven working days. Carriers may offer travel vouchers, but they must first let passengers know they can get a refund. The proposed rule states that the reason for the cancellation – weather, air traffic delay, mechanics, pandemic – does not matter.

Before the proposed rule is issued, the industry the trade association argued that passengers who buy non-refundable tickets should bear everything cancellation risks. If passengers want to be entitled to refunds, the airlines have said, they should buy more expensive, fully refundable tickets. The Department for Transport commendably refused to accept this logic, saying: ‘A reasonable consumer would not expect to have to pay more to buy a refundable ticket so that he could recover the price of the ticket when the airline did not provide the service. paid. for no action or fault of the consumer. »

Another useful change came just before Labor Day weekend, when the Department of Transportation introduced what it calls the Airline Customer Service Dashboard, which allows passengers to see what carriers agree to make up for them in the event of “controllable” (i.e., their fault) cancellations or significant delays. This is called ‘re-accommodation’ in the trade – re-accommodation – and it can take the form of re-booking on the same airline at no extra cost, or even on a competitor. As in the days of rule 240.

As the dashboard shows, however, some carriers won’t be so accommodating. Ultra low cost carriers such as Allegiant and Frontier, for example, will book you on their own flights but not on those of another carrier. Frontier will also not provide a hotel in the event of a cancellation or one night delay. The majors, warned a few weeks ago by the Department of Transport’s dashboard, now seem more willing to hand out food vouchers in the event of long delays or provide hotel rooms when scraping evening flights . Although carriers are already part of it, passengers can now use a simple dashboard rather than trying to read the contract of carriage on a carrier’s website to find out what they are or are not entitled to.

It could also help airline workers who now have to deal with confused and angry passengers.

When the travel network crashes, as it often did this summer, airlines use software, along with experienced humans, to decide which flights to cancel. The idea is to minimize both economic and passenger disruption. For example, flights with a lot of “terminators” – that is, passengers who end their journey where the plane lands – are more likely to be affected than those loaded with connecting passengers on another flight. , especially an international flight.

Airlines have reduced cancellations to a science. What the Department of Transport is saying now is that more rigor in dealing with the consequences of delays and cancellations is as late as some flights.