More Protection for Airline Passengers

Carol Pucci, The Seattle Times, August 21, 2011

Win some. Lose some.

We won't get everything airline-passenger-rights groups pushed for when new federal consumer-protection rules take effect in a few days, but some of the changes are significant, and there's more to come.

Here's what changes as of Tuesday:

--Bumping: It happens. You have a confirmed reservation, paid for months in advance, then you get to the gate and find out the flight is overbooked.

Gate agents first offer incentives to get people to voluntarily give up their seats. One of the best deals I remember is agreeing to be bumped off an Alaska Airlines flight from Medford, Ore., to Seattle. My husband and I snagged credit vouchers worth $300 each.

When all else fails, and there are still more people than seats, airlines can "involuntarily" bump passengers, usually starting with those who check in last.

New rules adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) boost the amount airlines must pay for these "involuntary bumps." For short delays, you'll be entitled to up to twice the amount of your ticket, up to $650. For longer delays, you can get up to four times the ticket price, or up to $1,300.

What to expect: Hopefully, fewer bumps. Perhaps anticipating the new rules, U.S. airlines reported half the involuntary bumps in the first three months of this year compared to the same period in 2010, according to the DOT. That could change, however, if a poor economy causes airlines to cut flights this fall. If you don't mind giving up your seat, hold out for a good offer. I usually haggle for a credit voucher plus a first-class seat.

--Tarmac delays: The new rules impose a four-hour limit on the time international flights can spend sitting on the tarmac before allowing passengers to get off. This brings international flights in line with the rule limiting domestic flights to three-hour delays.

What to expect: No more sitting around for hours on stuffy, crowded planes the way thousands were trapped last winter during blizzards in New York. For shorter delays, expect airlines to provide the basics: food, water and working toilets.

--Refund of bag fees if luggage is lost. Airlines dug in their heels on this one, and the DOT backed off. You'll get your checked-bag fees refunded only if the airline permanently loses your luggage.

What to expect: A few airlines have come up with their own policies, but none offer cash refunds. Alaska Airlines does the best by its customers, with the promise of a $20 voucher for a future flight if bags don't arrive at the gate within 20 minutes.

There's no way I'm going to pay $40-$50 per round trip to check a bag. I travel everywhere with just a carry-on, but I know not everyone can do that. If you must check a bag, pay the fees with a credit card. If there's a problem, dispute the charge as you would any service you paid for and didn't get.

Coming in January

Delayed from late October to Jan. 24, 2012, is a rule requiring advertised fares to include all government taxes and fees. Gone in advertisements and online searches will be the footnote or asterisk next to what looks like a bargain fare until you click through and see the bottom-line price.

Airlines tried to argue their way out of this one, then pleaded for extra time to reprogram computers and online-search engines. Seems odd, given how fast they adjusted fares to eliminate taxes during the FAA shutdown in July.

Also delayed until next year is a rule allowing travelers 24 hours to cancel nonrefundable tickets without penalty. Alaska, Delta, United/Continental and some others already do this.

Travel Wise runs Sundays in print and online at Questions welcome. Contact Carol Pucci at [email protected]. Twitter: @carolpucci

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