Boston Globe: Air passengers could see sweeping reforms and easier refunds. Consumer advocates and lawmakers say it’s still not enough
From his office in Warsaw, Tomasz Pawliszyn, chief executive of a company called AirHelp, assists customers from more than 200 countries to obtain refunds from airlines for delayed and canceled flights. The rules of compensation for disrupted flights are clear-cut for travelers from nearly every country, with a glaring exception: The United States.
“There are regulations that spell out what refunds and reimbursements passengers are entitled to in the EU, Brazil, Turkey, Canada, China, Israel, Indonesia… most anywhere you can think of. But in the US there is no accountability,” Pawliszyn said. “We have a huge number of [European] customers who have flown in the US and experienced delays and cancellations, and they are shocked at how difficult it is when they seek compensation or a refund.”
But the United States could soon join the ranks of the other countries with a proposed rule that would clearly spell out the circumstances under which passengers are entitled to compensation from airlines.
After decades of laissez-faire enforcement, the Department of Transportation is proposing changes to clarify the vague language airlines use to determine “significant delays,” potentially helping passengers receive refunds or vouchers more efficiently. A passenger has to experience a “significant delay,” to receive a refund, but for years the definition has been in the eye of the beholder or an airline representative.
Under the new DOT mandate, the ambiguities are gone. A significant delay will be defined as when a domestic departure or arrival is affected by three or more hours because of delays or changes, and six hours or more for international flights. The new definition would also include changes made to the departure or arrival airport, increases in the number of connections, or changes to the type of aircraft flown.
“When Americans buy an airline ticket, they should get to their destination safely, reliably, and affordably,” US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement last month. “This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines.”
Buttigieg said the changes were prompted by the deluge of problems travelers faced in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequently bumpy reemergence of air travel over the past year. The proposal would also require airlines and ticket agents provide passengers flight credits or vouchers that are valid indefinitely when they are unable to fly for pandemic-related reasons, such as border closures or health advisories.
The DOT has so far received more than 4,000 public comments, with travelers overwhelmingly in favor of the changes; several said they’d like even more consumer protections in place. Some used the forum to share their personal horror stories.
What isn’t clear is how long travelers will need to wait until these consumer-friendly changes are enacted. The deadline for public comment is Nov. 21. A DOT spokeswoman said that after analyzing all comments, the department will decide whether to proceed with the rule as proposed, issue a new or modified proposal, or withdraw the proposal. Airlines will also have an opportunity to weigh in. Those familiar with similar proposals estimate it will likely be at least two years before changes take place.
Delayed or denied refunds and flight credits are one of the most frequent complaints to the DOT: For the first six months of 2022, the department received 28,550 complaints, more than it received for all of 2019.
The timeline for the proposal — and the reach of the mandate itself — doesn’t sit well with William McGee, a vocal passenger rights advocate with the American Economic Liberties Project. He said the DOT and Buttigieg must go much further to hold airlines accountable for past unissued refunds, canceled flights, and the delays that log-jammed service this summer.
“The bottom line is that the DOT has been a tremendous disappointment to all American travelers this year,” McGee said, contending Buttigieg hasn’t used his existing authority to penalize airlines. “What we’ve been seeing this summer from the airlines is both unfair and deceptive. We have an industry that, for months now, was scheduling flights without having the ability to operate all of them; we’ve been calling them phantom flights.”
But McGee did acknowledge that Buttigeig has done more on the issue than his predecessors.
The airline trade organization Airlines for America, which represents carriers such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and JetBlue, has maintained throughout the pandemic that it has been complying with all federal laws and regulations in issuing refunds when flights are canceled.
“We have made significant adjustments to travel policies throughout the pandemic to offer increased flexibility to consumers,” Rebecca Spicer, a spokeswoman for the organization, wrote in a recent commentary. “[Airlines for America] passenger airlines have eliminated all change fees for domestic flights, and many have adjusted the expiration dates for travel credits. Additionally, airlines have been working with the Department of Transportation to clarify existing practices and increase transparency for travelers.”
But McGee, and several lawmakers, say it’s time for the airlines to be held accountable for refunds and address problems, particularly after the industry collectively received $50 billion in US pandemic funds, with the understanding the money be used to retain staff and prepare the airlines for when travel returned to normal.
There are several other initiatives afoot to make air travel more consumer friendly. Last month, a coalition of 25 state attorneys general, including Maura Healey of Massachusetts, asked congressional leaders to enact legislation to allow states to pursue actions against airlines. The industry has been regulated solely by the federal government since airlines were deregulated in 1978.
“Even if the US DOT improves the current regulatory protections, we remain deeply concerned and frustrated that the agency is unable or unwilling to vindicate the rights of consumers and to hold airline companies accountable for irresponsible actions,” the letter reads. “It is time to authorize state attorneys general, and perhaps a different federal agency, to enforce consumer protections for airline travelers.”
A source from Healey’s office said she has received nearly 900 complaints about airlines since 2017 but has been unable to pursue them because of the current law.
Meanwhile, the American Economic Liberties Project has drafted model legislation that goes a step further by giving power to state courts and legislatures to oversee consumer protections. It seeks to abolish the 40-year-old rule that stipulates the DOT is the sole regulator of the airlines. A formal announcement of the proposed legislation will be made this week.
Additionally, several House members and senators including Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced the Cash Refunds for Flight Cancellations Act last month, which would codify into law the DOT rule requiring major airlines offer consumers a cash refund for cancellations or significant delays. It would also provide consumers a new right to a cash refund if passengers cancel their ticket up until 48 hours before the scheduled departure.
Similar airline consumer legislation has withered on the vine in Congress. But the summer of 2022 may provide a catalyst for consensus within a very divided House and Senate.
“I think party politics matter a little bit less on airline issues,” McGee said. “I’ve seen more bipartisan anger from Congress in recent weeks than I ever have. There were tens of thousands of flights canceled this summer, and some of those involved members of Congress. This isn’t an abstract thing.”
Although Buttigieg’s consumer protection proposal sounds similar to the European Union’s Flight Compensation Regulation, it doesn’t offer as many protections and options, leaving an opening for additional legislation. Bottom line: Consumer advocates say that purchasing an airline ticket should be no different than purchasing any other service: If you don’t get the service you paid for, you get your money back.
In Warsaw, Pawliszyn of AirHelp, has spent hours on the phone haggling with US-based airlines to get refunds, or at least vouchers, for passengers. He’s waiting to see if the current movement is more than just blustery big talk brought about by a difficult summer.
“We are huge advocates of it here,” Pawliszyn said of the US proposal. “Anything would be an improvement over what is in place now. But I think travelers deserve more than a small improvement. Why not make the process easier for everyone?”