The New Passenger Bill of Rights

  • Airlines Behaving Badly

    WikiLeaks wasn’t the only public outfit under scrutiny this year. Airlines notoriously ramped up fees, ticking off consumers by charging for peanuts or demanding cash for a little extra legroom in coach. As if the introduction of invasive pat-down screenings from the TSA weren’t enough to set tempers off, delays and pricey holiday fares didn't ease frustrations, either. Despite this, passengers do have a friend in a number of consumer advocacy groups fighting to define and expand their rights aboard the aircraft and in the terminal. There’s no doubt the airline industry remains in flux, but 2011 could very well be the year when consumers finally get their voices heard by the Department of Transportation, mostly thanks to efforts by Kate Hanni, and the nonprofit organization she founded and leads as an executive director, “I really feel that this DOT is a consumer-oriented group, and they have the interests of consumer passengers at heart,” says Charles Leocha, director of advocacy group, Consumer Travel Alliance. “There will be a dramatic change,” most of which he expects to see next year when a new set of proposed rules gets approved. Here, we highlight the rights travelers will be excited to have next year, what rights we currently have and what to do when things go awry. Photo Credit: lunchtimemama
    Full Disclosure of Fees
  • Full Disclosure of Fees

    “The airline industry was deregulated in 1978,” says Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and journalist, “and when they deregulated it, they really deregulated it. Now there’s a sense that maybe we’ve gone too far. Passengers, advocates and government are calling for change.” A big change would be getting airlines to be more up-front about the real costs of add-on fees, the ones that raise ticket prices. “Nobody has any idea how much any of those unbundled charges cost,” says Hanni. Leocha agrees. “If you’re checking a bag, it’s going to be at least $50 more expensive, because you’re paying $25 each way … It’s a closed, obscure system.” Photo Credit: xJasonRogersx
    No tarmac delays, period.
  • No tarmac delays, period.

    “We want tarmac delay rules extended to any airline outside of the U.S.,” says Leocha, “with an increase in code sharing fees.” If you’re wondering what “code sharing” means, it refers to planes that might be used by a carrier, but are owned by another. “The pilots might work for a different airline, too,” Leocha adds. DOT passed a tarmac rule in December of last year that allows passengers stuck in stranded planes to disembark after three hours. Extending the rule to code shares, Leocha says, would cover more fliers, particularly those on regional flights. Photo Credit: Keenan Pepper  
    Full Disclosure of Bumping Compensation
  • Full Disclosure of Bumping Compensation

    Everyone has heard that voice come over the speaker at the airport asking for volunteers to be bumped in favor of a cash incentive. But consumer groups want these offers to come with a full explanation. “A lot of air carriers haven’t been honest about what your rights are,” says Hanni. “You may be able to have $400 if you’re delayed one to four hours, but almost all air carriers are saying, ‘who will take a $100 voucher,’ and there’s no explanation being given. In the new rules, they’ll have to explain what the possibility is of you being kicked off your flight, and what the compensation levels are, so you don’t accept something that’s far less.” Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Real-Time Status Alerts
  • Real-Time Status Alerts

    It’s nice to know when your plane will depart after waiting at the gate for five hours. But of course, the airlines don’t like to tell you. “They hook you in by not notifying you of delays,” Hanni says, “they make you wait so you don’t bother to look at other options, switch airlines,” or abandon your plans altogether. “What this rule would do,” she continues, “is give you an update every 10 minutes if there are any flight delays. The average consumer is just sitting there going, ‘gosh, this is no fun, and having no idea what the reasons are.’” Another problem facing consumers is that airlines tend to over-schedule the number of planes departing from the airport. “We want to lower that number,” says Hanni. “The FAA needs to regulate this to be realistic, otherwise [too many] planes are going to be stuck on the tarmac.” Photo Credit: Zoom Zoom
    Lost Baggage Refunds
  • Lost Baggage Refunds

    Travelers have few, if any, rights when airlines lose their baggage. But advocates hope this will change. “We want them to reimburse you for the contents of your bag,” says Leocha. For what to do when airlines do lose your bags, keep reading. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    What Else Is in Store
  • What Else Is in Store

    Here are more rules advocates, especially Hanni, are fighting for: - Only 16 air carriers report flight delays to DOT. New regulations would make every airline do this. - An “air travel ombudsman” for every air carrier. “The DOT would have one dedicated solely to airline passengers needs and issues,” says Hani. - Tax and surcharge refunds for canceled non-refundable flights. “You should at least get the government taxes back,” Hani says. - “Principal Boarding Rules” to be published on all airlines’ websites.  What are these? - Sizing standards for seats and legroom, since none currently exist. Says Hani: “We are fighting for this vigorously.” Photo Credit: nffcnnr
    Know Your Rights
  • Know Your Rights

    “You’ll often find things that say, ‘do your due diligence, check your name, don’t wait to get to the airport to figure out what your rights are,” Elliot says. And, though you may be surprised, you do have some rights already. Find them online at DOT’s website, and keep in mind that while you’re at the mercy of airlines with arbitrary add-on fees like seat space and food, you can still contest airlines overbooking or losing your baggage. Photo Credit: sherrymain  
    Baggage Reclaim
  • Baggage Reclaim

    If you lose a bag, quickly file a claim with your airline. “They will look to figure out how to find your bag, and hopefully, they will get your bag back to you as quickly as possible,” says Leocha. Still, “the airlines owe you nothing,” until 90 days have passed, and Leocha says “it really depends on the contract of carriage and how good the person feels dealing with you.” Make the most of the situation by remaining calm and politely asking for an overnight bag. If you’re headed to a big event, ask if you can get reimbursed for new clothes and keep the receipt. If after 90 days your bag still hasn’t shown up, the airline will reimburse you for the contents of your bag, Leocha says. But be forewarned, the airline “will ask for receipts of when the materials were bought, and if you had a shirt, or pants, they won’t be worth the full price anymore. They will give you the depreciated value.” Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Call the Big Guns
  • Call the Big Guns

    Don’t be afraid to call the big guns, says Hanni, especially if things go haywire. “When you’re stuck on the plane for more than three hours, get out your cell phone and start taking pictures, then send it to the media,” she says. “We need to encourage consumers to share what is happening to them.” A quick media how-to: -  Get a hold of the local news and explain your situation. Be as calm and detailed as possible. -  Take multimedia like audio, photos or video. Media outlets will be more inclined to use it. - Don’t be afraid to upload those photos to consumer sites like Creating change “takes media attention, pressure from the public, pressure from the blogosphere,” says Elliot. “The government does pay attention to what the blogs have to say in online media … when members of Congress are making phone calls and letters, that will light a fire under [the airlines].” Photo Credit: Getty Images
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