DOT

Government set record for airline fines in 2012 — is that good news for passengers?

vapor trailA more activist Transportation Department, which set a record in 2011 for the number of fines it issued against airlines for violating aviation consumer protection rules, appears to have maintained its momentum this past year.

In 2012, the Department issued 49 fines for consumer rule violations and assessed $3,610,000 in penalties, exceeding the previous record of 47 fines and $3,264,000 in penalties issued in 2011.

Among its most significant actions: policing new rules that require airlines and travel agencies to quote a full fare and disclose baggage fees, and fining the first foreign airline for a tarmac delay.

“Consumers deserve to be treated fairly when they fly,” says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who called protecting air travelers’ rights “a high priority.”
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Should I have been charged extra for my checked luggage?

Question: I traveled to Europe on a codeshare flight between Delta Air Lines and KLM. Before I left the United States, I carefully checked the size and weight restrictions for my two bags on both the Delta and KLM websites, because I’m an artist and I needed to take rolls of paper with me. I made sure my bags complied.

The trip from Portland, Ore., to Copenhagen, Denmark went off without a hitch; I paid $50 to check a second bag. However, on the flight from Toulouse, France, to Portland, Ore., I had to pay 200 Euros for the second bag. When the gate agent saw my second bag, she declared it “too long,” she never measured it. Although the flight was on KLM, the airport staff worked for Air France. There was no KLM or Delta presence that I could find in that airport.
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New rules for airline fees are a partial victory for travelers

If airfares confuse you as much as they confuse me, then I have some good news: Several new rules are going to make it easier to calculate the total cost of a ticket.

Maybe.

Starting Jan. 26, a new U.S. Transportation Department rule will require airlines to include all taxes and fees in their advertised fares. Other provisions of the rule — banning post-purchase price increases and allowing passengers to hold certain reservations without payment or to cancel them without penalty for 24 hours after booking — will take effect Jan. 24.
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Are new airline fee disclosure rules any good?

Search for a flight between Washington and Los Angeles on United.com and you’ll find a notice posted high above the fares saying, “Additional baggage charges may apply.”

On the Delta Air Lines site, a query for flights from Baltimore to Memphis yields a similar warning — albeit in slightly smaller type — that “there may be additional fees for your carry-on/checked baggage.”

And on USAirways.com, a check for flights between Philadelphia and Phoenix reveals a disclaimer at the top of the screen: “Does not include taxes and optional fees. Checked baggage fees may apply.”

None of this may look like a big deal to you, but it is. Because there’s big money at stake. The domestic airlines raked in $3.3 billion in luggage fees last year, an increase of more than half a billion dollars over 2009.
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The truth about “hidden” airline fees

Just how hidden are the travel industry’s so-called hidden fees?

Fair question, given that the Transportation Department just weighed in on the topic. In late April, the agency issued a final ruling affecting how airfares are advertised and displayed. The move could have a ripple effect across the entire travel industry.

Are fees completely concealed, such as the $25 “early check-in” fee Julie Sturgeon had to pay recently when she arrived at an Ocala, Fla., hotel?

“No mention of the charge on the hotel’s site,” says Sturgeon, an Indianapolis-based travel agent. “When I checked in, the receptionist just said it was hotel policy.”

Or are they only partially hidden, such as the one Karen Kinnane had to shell out when she scored an upgrade to first class on her flight from Paris to Newark last month?
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Where’s the outrage?

I have just one question in the wake of the Transportation Department’s so-called “historic” rulemaking on airline passenger rights.

Why isn’t the airline industry upset?

The new regulations will force airlines to disclose their fees more clearly, increases denied boarding compensation, requires airlines to reimburse checked baggage fees when they lose your luggage, and bans post-purchase fare increases, among other things.

And the industry’s reaction? It thanked the government.
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How should airline fees be displayed?

So the federal government weighed in on airline fees earlier this week, and will soon require optional fees like baggage, meals and in-flight Wi-Fi, to be “prominently” disclosed on a carrier’s website.

But that may not be enough.

The Transportation Department has promised a second administrative rulemaking later this year to deal with the question of how, exactly, airlines should be required to show their fees.
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Weekend survey: Should peanuts be banned from planes?

Peanut allergy is the most common cause of food-related death, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Given that, is it responsible for airlines to continue serving their passengers peanuts on planes?

The Transportation Department is considering a rule that would prohibit peanuts from being served on commercial aircraft, even though it has partially backed off on the proposal, because it lacked the authority.

Some say it’s about time the government takes action to protect passengers with allergies. Others say it’s an infringement of their rights to eat whatever they want, whenever they want.
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Tarmac delay hall of shame: holiday edition

Anyone who thinks tarmac delays are dead was in for a little shock this week. Hundreds of flights were delayed in a series of powerful blizzards, and a few sat between the runway and the terminal for hours, waiting for the weather to clear.

The Transportation Department, which hasn’t fined a single airline for a tarmac delay since instituting its three-hour rule last spring, will almost certainly have to take some enforcement action this time. And, of course, there’s a big loophole: International flights remain exempt from the turnback rule.

More than two dozen international flights waited more than three hours from Monday to Wednesday to get to an open gate in New York, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The worst delay appears to be a Cathay Pacific flight from Bangkok that arrived Monday evening and got to a gate 12 hours later at 7:45 a.m. Tuesday.
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“No text message or phone call is worth the risk”

On a late winter afternoon, I was run off the New Jersey Turnpike by a delivery truck whose driver was talking on a cell phone.

No one was seriously injured in the collision, but I’ll never forget the loud “pop” of metal against glass and seeing the truck flip over and grind to a halt in a shower of sparks next to my badly-dented car.

When it happened 17 years ago, there were no laws against talking on a cellphone and driving. But thanks in no small part to a consumer-friendly Transportation Department — the most consumer-friendly ever, perhaps — there are. The latest is a proposed new safety regulation that would prohibit interstate commercial truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating a commercial motor vehicle.
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