Department for Transport Proposes New Rule to Ease Air Travel Chaos for Passengers

In the midst of an exasperating summer for air travel, the Department of Transportation on Wednesday proposed changes to federal policy that guide flight refunds, providing more recourse for passengers when airlines cancel flights or significantly alter the schedule, route or the seat categories of a flight.

The rule, which the agency will decide after a 90-day public comment period closes, would also require U.S. carriers that received pandemic aid to issue a full refund if a passenger decides not to travel due to certain coronavirus-related factors, such as a country that is closed to non-essential travel.

“This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from airlines,” said Pete Buttigieg, secretary of transportation, in a statement announcing the proposal.

Under current Department of Transportation policy, airlines are already supposed to reimburse passengers for flights that have been canceled or “significantly changed.” But airlines have been accused of exploiting both the ambiguity around the term “significant change” and the fact that many air travelers are unaware that they are entitled to refunds, rather than credits, for canceled flights.

The proposed policy defines “significant change” as a three-hour delay for a domestic flight and a six-hour delay for an international flight. The new rule would also entitle passengers to full refunds for any departure or destination airport change, addition of a layover, or aircraft change that results in a significant reduction in seat class. This week, several Democratic senators, including Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, introduced a bill with similar protections.

Air travel has been frustrating for many during the pandemic, but the number of delays and cancellations has increased over the past year, affecting thousands of passengers eager to travel after two years of restrictions and closures.

About 20 percent of U.S. airline flights have been delayed this year, 6 percent more than the airlines’ performance in the previous two years, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking company. On busy travel weekends, airlines have canceled flights four times as often as in 2019.

Many stranded or delayed travelers have complained about the tortuous process required to obtain refunds.

“It’s basically theft,” said Kathryn T. Jones, 64, a nonprofit grant writer from Austin, Texas, who says she’s fed up with airlines altering flights without offering adequate compensation.

In June, United Airlines notified Ms. Jones that her layover at Newark Liberty International Airport, for a September flight from Austin to Dublin, had changed. When she looked at her itinerary, she discovered that the plane on the Newark to Dublin leg had also been changed and no longer contained premium economy seats, an upgrade she had paid more for so she could sit near fewer people. When she tried to get a refund to buy a seat on another airline, she said, the airline told her she could only receive a credit. That policy would change under the new rule.

“I think it’s absolutely necessary,” Ms. Jones said of the proposed rule clarifying when airlines will be required to issue refunds.

The Department of Transportation’s proposal also requires airlines that received significant federal assistance early in the pandemic, such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and United, to issue full refunds when passengers are unable to fly for certain reasons related to travel. virus. All airlines must, at a minimum, provide non-expiring coupons when travelers are unable to fly for pandemic-related reasons outlined in the proposal.

On August 22, the Department of Transportation will hold an online public meeting to discuss the proposed changes.

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