Transportation completes plans to improve airline service

Department would double compensation amount that airlines pay passengers bumped from oversold flights.

The Transportation Department Wednesday finalized and proposed new plans to reduce airline delays and congestion and improve passenger service, including doubling the amount of compensation that airlines pay flyers bumped from oversold flights.

The final changes to the department's bumping rule, which become effective next month, would give passengers up to $400 if they are rescheduled within two hours of their original arrival time or four hours for international flights, and up to $800 if they are not rerouted within that time.

The plan also expands to cover additional flights, including those with aircraft seating at least 30 people instead of the current criterion of a 60-seat minimum.

The payment to passengers depends on the ticket price and length of delay and comes on top of the value of the ticket, which can be used for alternative transportation or be refunded.

In addition, the department announced proposals to cut the delay in allowing aircraft to use additional alternative routes to avoid severe weather, including into Canadian airspace from the New York metropolitan area to avoid summertime thunderstorms and high winds. FAA will also open a second westbound route to offer a parallel route to cut delays from New York.

Two new possible congestion plans at New York's LaGuardia Airport were also proposed. Under one option, all air carriers would be given up to 20 slots per day for 10 years.

Over the next five years, 8 percent of additional slots currently used by an airline would be made available to any carrier through an auction and an additional 2 percent of the slots would be eliminated. Auction proceeds would go to new congestion reduction and capacity improvement work in the New York area.

Airlines that have fewer than 20 slots are not affected, just those that have more because they would have to cut down to no more than 20. The second option gives airlines permanent access to up to 20 slots daily for 10 years and beyond that, 20 percent of the slots currently used by airlines would be made available to all airlines via an auction.

Airlines would retain the net proceeds of the auction. The department will hold a 60-day public comment period on these two options.

D.J. Gribbin, the department's general counsel and aviation adviser to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, told reporters in a conference call that both options are intended to "stimulate a market where we have more efficient use of this airspace." He said the second option will not add costs to consumers because airlines will be trading slots among themselves, and it allows the airline industry to use a market to "fix itself without direct federal intervention."

The first option may mean costs are passed on to consumers, he said, but he emphasized that the department does not currently prefer one option over the other. More broadly, Gribbin said the proposed rules should reduce "significant cost born today by consumers" due to delay since "more choice, more competition results in lower fares."

Airlines, however, may be skeptical that the proposed changes at LaGuardia will reduce their costs or reduce congestion. The Air Transport Association, the main trade association for major airlines, was still reviewing the proposal when this story was published.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who co-sponsored passenger bill of rights legislation with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said giving passengers more compensation for being bumped "is certainly a step in the right direction, but there are underlying passenger rights issues that [DOT] and FAA still have not addressed."

These include instances where passengers are held on planes for hours without adequate food, water and clean restrooms, which her and Snowe's bill addresses, she said. Boxer called on the administration to support that bill.