Are the government’s new airline consumer protection rules good for passengers?

After months of comments and deliberation, the Transportation Department this morning released its final consumer protection rules for airline passengers.

I covered the proposed rulemaking extensively on this site last year. Here’s a side-by-side comparison between the proposed and final rule (PDF).

I won’t bury the lede: We knew that the most talked-about issue in the proposed rulemaking was peanut allergies. It didn’t make it to the final regulation because of a bureaucratic error. It may never be addressed.

The most important issue — at least according to a survey of air travelers — was price disclosure for airline tickets.

And on that issue, the government appears to have punted.

The new rule would require U.S. and foreign air carriers to disclose so-called “ancillary” fees, including luggage fees, on their websites. But it will address fee disclosure at the point of sale — in other words, telling passengers the true “all-in” cost of an airline ticket — in a separate rulemaking.

That effectively resets the clock for the airline industry, giving it another year to offer tickets that don’t include the price of a checked bag, and collect billions in ancillary fees that it might otherwise not.

The rest of the rule changes, which take effect in four months, seem positive.

Among the rules:

• A provision that the price of an advertised ticket must include government taxes and fees imposed on a per-passenger basis. Previously, these extras were allowed to be excluded.

• A requirement that airlines refund any fee for carrying a bag if the bag is lost.

• A requirement that all domestic and foreign air carriers disclose all fees for optional services to consumers through a prominent link on their homepage.

• An increase in compensation for being involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight.

• Banning the practice of post-purchase price increases in air transportation or air tours.

• A requirement that all carriers that must adopt tarmac delay contingency plans to file data with the DOT regarding lengthy tarmac delays.

• Allowing reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or canceled without penalty, for at least 24 hours after the reservation is made if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight’s departure date.

I have mixed feelings about this morning’s news. While DOT made some important steps toward protecting airline passengers, a lot of work still needs to be done.

What do you think?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • sirwired

    I’m not sure I agree with the rule about no post-purchase price increases for air tours. In practice, this will simply mean the end of air-inclusive tour packages where the air is offered at a significant discount over what can be obtained on a regular public website. Why? The deepest discounts are not necessarily available a huge amount of time in advance. (Tickets bought far in advance are in effect a bet by the airline that they have guessed correctly on fuel prices.) Also, larger operators can get deeper discounts if they have a final tour count and can buy the tickets all at once.

    AFAIK, the practice of not “fixing” the air price until Final Payment was adequately disclosed. (And I don’t recall any columns here complaining about the practice.)

  • Crissy

    I’m glad to see that the airlines will have to refund our money for checked bags that get lost.

    It seems a lot of these are steps in the right direction, but nothing earth shattering here.

  • cjr001

    The only thing I can really take away with this is that positive changes will have to be done one step at a time, and we can only one that this is the first of many steps forward.

    But I’m not holding my breath.

  • Bill

    It seems to take them years to come up with rules that ban practices which should never have been allowed in the first place.

    Of course, airlines come up with nonsense responses, like flights could be cancelled and passengers held up for days. Of course, they need to make sure passengers get to their destinations in a reasonable amount of time when there is a disruption.

  • Rich

    I do believe it’ll result in more cancellations as airlines will be more likely to pull the plane back to gate if a lengthy delay occurs. We already know that airlines have already trimmed their fleet size to minimums so it’ll be less likely that one will be able to just be protected on the very next flight to one’s destination.

  • Dave Lieberman

    Coming soon to an airline near you: rules-lawyering about what exactly “lost” means when it comes to baggage; refusal to close lost-luggage cases since that would mean they’d have to refund money; eight figures of owed-but-unpaid lost-luggage refunds that cost more in time for passengers to seek than the amount of the refund.

    The government is slow and bureaucratic; airlines have plenty of ‘grey area’ in which to continue to extract money from passengers.

  • Mary Graham

    This consumer would like to be protected from the TSA. Regardless of the above, we’ll never fly again as long as we’re treated like criminals.

  • Jewel

    Looks like a good start, for them to show their appreciation to the consumers. Hope news like this would be a regular post=)

  • Jake

    I notice the bill addressed mandatory government fees, and optional fees (such as baggage)…doesn’t look like it requires airlines to include their own mandatory fees (such as the fuel surcharge) though. FAIL.

  • DJP

    “A. Ban the practice of post-purchase price increases
    in air transportation or air tours unless increase is due to
    government-imposed taxes or fees and passenger was
    provided full disclosure of potential for increase and
    affirmatively agreed to the potential for such an
    increase prior to purchase.”

    The cynic in me is reading this as the airlines operate like cruise ships licensing their aircraft in a foreign government and then claiming there were new “government taxes” imposed b the country of where their aircraft is based.

  • Dick Jordan

    Thanks for providing the summary which compares the proposed vs. final rules. Here are my thoughts:

    1. The requirement that food and water be provided after 2 hours of delay (NPRM “A”) sounded reasonable, but for some unknown reason, seems to have been dropped.

    2. Provisions B (a),(b),and (c) on refunds and 24-hold on quoted fares (a practice that at least some airlines used to follow voluntarily) seem favorable to passengers.

    3. Substantive responses to consumer complaints should be required within no more than 10 days, not 60 as proposed and adopted.

    4. Are the payments for involuntary bumping to be the same for all airlines, or can each adopt its own payment scheme?

    5. Airlines should be prohibited from issuing vouchers to those bumped involuntarily, and be required to make immediate payment, via cash or credit to the passenger’s credit card, of the entire fare, all ancillary fees, taxes, etc., plus the monetary penalty, unless the airline, through its own efforts and at its entire expense, re-books the passenger and all of that passenger’s traveling companions, for travel on its aircraft, or that of another airline, to the same destination, in the same or higher class of cabin, whichever is available, with departure within two hours of the time the scheduled departure time of the flight from which the passenger was bumped. In addition, if the passenger and the passenger’s traveling companions cannot be re-booked on a flight to the same destination without an over-night stay, the airline shall immediately pay each passenger in cash $500/day for each day until the passenger and all of the passenger’s travel companions must await departure on a flight to that destination.

    6. The entire costs of travel, including all fees and taxes, must be revealed when the a fare quote is first provided to the prospective passenger, regardless of whether the fare quote is provided in an advertisement, in response to an on-line, in-person, or telephone request, directly by the airline, any ticket agent, or any 3rd-party on-line booking service. Any airline, ticket agent, or 3rd-party on-line book service which fails to make such disclosure, shall immediately after such failure, and without prior demand by the prospective passenger, pay to the prospective passenger, in cash, check, or via credit to the prospective passenger’s credit card account, $1,000 for each person for whom the prospective passenger sought to book on the flight. Failure to make such payment shall be a felony, subject the airline, ticket agent, or 3rd party on-line booking service, to a $250,000 fine and imprisonment in a federal penitentiary for no less than five years per violation.

    7. Does the requirement to disclose changes in bag fees/allowances “for three months” mean for three months in advance of the ticket purchase, date of flight, or some other period.

    8. Banning post-purchase price increases is good. Requirement airlines, ticket agents, and 3rd-party on-line booking sites to immediately refund the difference in price if the ticket price decreases would be even better.

    9. Prohibiting carriers from limiting the filing of passenger lawsuits to an inconvenient forum is good. Allowing passengers to file suit, including small claims actions, in the forum of their choice would be better. Specifically allowing class action suits to be filed in the forum of any class action plaintiff’s choosing would be better yet.

  • Dick Jordan

    And, on a someone lighter note (pun intended), I offer this musical comment on “Full Fare Disclosure), passed on to me by a fellow student in Don George’s travel writing class at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. (Be sure to watch until the final note is sung:

  • The Good Doctor

    How can the new rules be good for passengers if the airlines aren’t complaining about the cost of compliance?!?

  • welltravelled123

    What should have been addressed and was not are the outrageous fees charged for changing or cancelling a ticket. The airline I fly most often has a “price guarantee” that they will refund the difference if the price of my ticket goes down after purchase. But they also charge $150 for a domestic ticket change (more for international) in order to claim my refund. Which in most cases makes their refund policy a joke. The change fee should be capped at 10%-15% of the ticket cost and when prices go DOWN there should be no fee at all. The airlines want it both ways!

  • Dixie

    I like the rule “Allowing reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or canceled without penalty, for at least 24 hours after the reservation is made.” I think it will cut down on reservations made with mistakes in name, travel dates, etc.

  • BobChi

    Am I misinterpreting this?

    “giving it another year to offer tickets that don’t include the price of a checked bag”

    Are you saying the airlines ought to be required to charge for a checked bag for people who don’t need to check a bag? Of course airlines should be able to offer tickets that don’t include the price of a checked bag. Baggage handling is a major expense for airlines, and the cost certainly should be passed on to those passengers who want the service, not those who don’t.

    Don’t make me pay for your shipping service.

  • BobChi

    I agree with you. I fairly often book for groups, and there is plenty of disclosure about what aspects are fixed and what aren’t. Just read the contract before signing it.

  • LFH

    There’s so much attention to consumer protection rules for aviation, but scant attention is given to consumer protection rules for other modes of transportation.

    When traveling by motorcoach, standard liability for lost or damaged baggage is $250; additional liability can be purchased up to a cap of $1,000 (extra charge:$16). Baggage is not transferred by the motorcoach company, and without any left luggage facilities, passengers making connections are required to stay with the baggage like a ball and chain. There’s no liability whatsoever for being bumped–no cash, no food, no hotel–and passengers may arrive 24 hours late if a particular over-booked route operates only once daily. In some cases terminals close down after some passengers have been denied boarding, and these individuals are then ejected into the darkness outside (sometimes with cold and rain), left to fend themselves and their baggage from any troublemakers that might lurk around closed bus terminals late at night, until the terminal re-opens the next morning.

    Airline passengers are fortunate in being able to capture the attention of government officials (even if they don’t always regulate as best as they could). But it would be nice if our government officials did not wear blinders when drafting rules to protect passengers . . . not everyone flies in airplanes.