The Transportation Department Wants Airlines to Treat Passengers More Like Human Beings

Passengers retrieve their luggage after their flights, Friday, May 27, 2016 at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. Passengers retrieve their luggage after their flights, Friday, May 27, 2016 at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. Matt York/AP

The US government is sticking it to the airlines.

Don’t get too excited. You’re not getting more legroom. But US airlines will soon be held to a higher standard under new consumer protection rules that aim to give the flying public a clearer picture of airlines’ customer service and performance.

The Department of Transportation this week proposed that airlines refund baggage fees if a passenger’s baggage is delayed, which may seem like a basic tenet of customer service, perhaps borrowed from a pizzeria. Airlines currently only have to refund the checked-luggage fees if the bag is lost. Transportation officials didn’t say how long the bag would have to be delayed before passengers could get their money back. Checked-bag fees start at around $25 and run upwards of $200 for additional bags.

Passengers flying in the US already are entitled to up to $3,500 from domestic carriers for lost or delayed luggage, but under the new Obama administration proposal, airlines will have to refund the checked-bag fee too, if the flight is substantially delayed. Most carriers worldwide owe the passenger compensation of around $1,400 under an international treaty that governs air travel called the Montreal Convention (pdf), though some countries pay more.

As much as passengers are starting to shun checked baggage, the luggage fees US airlines charge are a cash cow and generated close to $4 billion last year, according to the Department of Transportation. These fees are an important revenue stream because airfares have tumbled as airlines have increased the number of flights they operate.

The customer service upgrades don’t stop there. The government is also mandating that airlines provide more information so passengers can better choose a carrier, though their choices have dwindled after years of industry consolidation.

Under new final rules, which will go into effect a month after they are published in the Federal Register, airlines will be required to:

  • Provide more data on their on-time performance by including information from the regional carriers that fly under the brand. The government considers the current reporting practice “cherry-picking.”
  • Disclose how often they lose or mishandle wheelchairs, “so air travelers with disabilities can easily compare carriers and make informed travel decisions.”
  • Inform the public of how many bags it loses. Currently, US airlines only report how many bags they lose per 1,000 passengers (pdf).

The government will also require online travel sites to disclose commissions or other payments from airlines if those payments influence how a site ranks flights in search results.

US airline industry group Airlines for America disagreed with the department’s stance.

“It would be difficult to find an industry that is more transparent than the airline industry; customers always know exactly what they are paying for before they buy,” said the group’s CEO Nicholas Calio. “Efforts designed to reregulate how airlines distribute their products and services are bad for airline customers, employees, the communities we serve and our overall U.S. economy.”

The rules don’t mean domestic air travel will suddenly become a first-class experience. But they will give consumers a touch more insight into what they could expect for their money.

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