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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Inside the New Flight Rules

NY Times

THE federal government is taking a stronger hand in regulating how airlines treat passengers, and new rules limiting long tarmac delays are just the first step.

“I don’t know of another time in the department’s history when we’ve stood up for passengers and said enough is enough,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, mentioning the overnight stranding of passengers on a plane in Rochester, Minn., last summer as the tipping point prompting government action.

“There were actually personnel in the terminal who could’ve let people off the plane — that was ridiculous,” Mr. LaHood said.

Even before the latest rules, which went into effect April 29, the government had fined airlines for violations of existing regulations that cover baggage-reimbursement policies, fare advertising and compensation when passengers on over-booked flights are denied boarding.

It seems carriers may be getting the message. Although airline executives predicted “unintended consequences” and widespread cancellations if planes were required to return to the terminal after sitting on the tarmac for three hours, there have been no reports of this happening in the two weeks after the rule took effect. And tarmac delay problems have declined significantly ever since government officials signaled they would take action after the Rochester incident.

In fact, other provisions in the new rules may ultimately have an even bigger impact on travelers. The Transportation Department is also requiring carriers to better inform passengers about frequently delayed flights before a ticket is purchased, improve processes for dealing with complaints and develop more transparent customer service plans.

Other rules regarding topics like baggage fees and fare advertising are in the works, and the Transportation Department expects to issue a proposal in June soliciting comments on its next round of regulations. Here’s an overview of what’s been adopted so far, and what’s under consideration.

No More Nights On the Tarmac

If an aircraft sits on the tarmac, airlines now have to give passengers the option to deplane after three hours (with exceptions for safety and security), and offer snacks and drinking water at the two-hour mark. They must also maintain working lavatories and provide medical attention, if necessary, and publish plans outlining how they will deal with lengthy tarmac delays.

Since the most egregious examples of passengers being stuck inside a plane on the tarmac have occurred because lower-level employees did not know what to do or even whom to call, the requirement to have a plan — and a designated airline representative to make decisions — may be the most effective way to prevent further headline-grabbing embarrassments. The three-hour time limit applies only to domestic flights; for international flights, carriers can set their own time limit but must disclose it in advance.

Late-Flight Records Will Be Exposed

The Transportation Department granted airlines a 60-day extension on a less-publicized new rule: a requirement that carriers publish each flight’s on-time record and how often it has arrived more than 30 minutes late within their search results. Special note will be made of flights that have arrived more than a half-hour late more than half the time. Airlines will also have to indicate the cancellation rate for any flight canceled more than 5 percent of the time.

Although the rule takes effect in late June, carriers will have until late July to begin publishing this information, since it is based on the previous month’s statistics for each flight. This provision may end up reducing delays: if travelers start choosing flights based on a flight’s on-time record and avoiding flights that are frequently late, airlines will have to correct unrealistic schedules. The Transportation Department has also deemed it “an unfair and deceptive practice” to continue operating a chronically delayed flight and will fine airlines that do so.

Complaining Will Be Easier

Another less-publicized new rule is that carriers now have to publish contact information for consumer complaints on their Web sites and on all e-ticket confirmations. The Transportation Department has also redesigned its aviation consumer protection Web site, airconsumer.dot.gov, to make it easier for passengers to file complaints.

While it may seem like filing a complaint to a government agency is a futile exercise, it’s not, and may be more effective than complaining to the airline. Transportation officials say they review every complaint and investigate when there’s a clear violation of government rules or a pattern of misbehavior that needs to be addressed, and sometimes these investigations result in financial penalties to the airline. The complaints also help investigators spot emerging problems that may require further regulation, such as whether airlines should have to refund checked baggage fees if a passenger’s luggage is lost or late.

Charges Should Be Fair and Transparent

Even before the new rules went into effect, the Transportation Department was working on another set of proposed regulations, which it plans to announce and open for public comment in June. Among the topics under consideration: how extra fees — such as for baggage or seat reservations — are disclosed, how fares are advertised and how and when airlines should provide alternative transportation for passengers on canceled flights. Also under discussion is the possibility of prohibiting airlines from pre-selecting extra options for passengers buying tickets (like travel insurance), so that consumers don’t have to un-check a box to avoid paying additional charges.

Kate Hanni, founder of Flyersrights.org, the advocacy group that pushed for the tarmac delay rule, said that she had been communicating with legislators and transportation officials about addressing these and other issues for many months. Although it took years to get the tarmac delay rule adopted, she believes government action is key to getting the airlines to change.

“This is the only way we’re going to see any meaningful change in the way airline passengers are treated,” she said.

Stay tuned for the next round of regulations.