Should large travel agents to required to adopt minimum customer service standards such as responding promptly to customer complaints? This is one of the Department of Transportation's (DOT) newly proposed rules that would require the disclosure of fees for certain basic airline services such as checked baggage and require more carriers to report their performance data to DOT.
The DOT also proposed to codify the DOT's definition of a ticket agent to ensure that companies that offer flight search tools and receive a form of compensation are adhering to the Department’s consumer protection requirements.
“Knowledge is power, and our latest proposal helps ensure consumers have clear and accurate information when choosing among air transportation options,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “The proposal we’re offering today will strengthen the consumer protections we have previously enacted and raise the bar for airlines and ticket agents when it comes to treating travelers fairly.”
The proposed new consumer protections build on the DOT's previous passenger protection rules issued in December 2009 and April 2011.
Under the proposed rule, airlines and ticket agents would be required to disclose fees for certain basic, additional services associated with airline tickets at all points of sale. The proposal defines these services as first checked bag, second checked bag, one carry-on item, and advance seat assignment, DOT says.
Currently, fees for additional services are often difficult to determine when searching for airfares and as a result, many consumers are unable to understand the true cost of travel before purchasing a ticket , DOT notes.
The proposed rule would also expand the pool of carriers that would be required to report information to the DOT about their on-time performance, oversales, and mishandled baggage rates.
The threshold for reporting would move from any carrier that accounts for at least one percent of domestic scheduled passenger revenue to any carrier that accounts for at least 0.5 percent of domestic scheduled passenger revenue, such as Spirit Airlines, DOT said.
Under the proposal, all reporting carriers would also be required to provide similar performance data for their domestic scheduled flights operated by code-share regional partners. The Department will include the operational data provided by all of the airlines in its publicly available Air Travel Consumer Report, allowing consumers to use this information to make better informed decisions regarding air transportation options and motivating airlines to continue to improve service.
The Department is also seeking to enhance protections for air travelers by publishing its interpretation of the term “ticket agent” which is used in many laws and regulations. The Department said it considers distribution systems such as internet search sites that offer a flight search tool, and other such intermediaries, regardless of the manner in which they are compensated for their role in arranging air transportation, to be “ticket agents” for the purposes of the Department’s air transportation consumer protection regulations.
Codifying the DOT's interpretation of the term will make clear that those entities must provide consumers with information such as identifying flights operated under a code-sharing arrangement. For example, entities such as Kayak and Google that offer flight search tools with fare, schedule, and availability information would be covered, DOT said.
Other proposals in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would:
- Require large travel agents to adopt minimum customer service standards such as responding promptly to customer complaints and providing an option to hold a reservation at the quoted fare without payment, or to cancel without penalty, for 24 hours if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight’s departure date;
- Require carriers and ticket agents to disclose any code-share arrangements on initial itinerary displays on their websites; and
- Prohibit unfair and deceptive practices such as preferentially ranking flights of certain carriers above others without disclosing the bias in any presentation of carrier schedules, fares, rules, or availability.
The DOT said its two previous comprehensive consumer protection rules have led to better, more fair treatment for the traveling public. Tarmac delays over three hours have been virtually eliminated over the last four years. Passengers are eligible for more compensation when they are involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight.
DOT said passengers now see the full fare when they get a quote for air transportation because the Department requires airlines and ticket agents to show a ticket price that includes all mandatory fees and taxes. Also, as a result of these rules, U.S. and foreign airlines have adopted customer service plans that address a variety of issues like providing prompt ticket refunds, offering the lowest fare available, notification of flight delays and providing an option to hold or cancel a reservation without penalty for 24 hours.
The DOT said its proposed rule addresses several additional airline customer service improvements recommended by two Federal advisory committees -- the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee (FAAC) and the Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protection (ACACP). It also fulfills commitments made in the Department’s previous passenger protections rule to addresses the issue of disclosure of ancillary services fee information, DOT said.
Comments on the proposal are due in 90 days, DOT said. The text of the proposed rule and comments are available on the Internet at www.regulations.gov, docket DOT-OST-2014-0056.