The Transportation Department announced new regulations that require airlines to treat their customers with respect. Image: Flickr/Deanster 1983 CC-BY-SA

Airlines have been reaping billions in profits with baggage fees and other hidden passenger charges. The Transportation Department announced Wednesday that a lot of that easy money is about to become more difficult. A new set of airline passenger protections will force airlines to be more more transparent, courteous and fair to their customers.

Airline fees rise as service declines

Saying that airline passengers have a right to be treated fairly, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a new set of regulations that take effect in 120 days. The rules cover how airlines handle lost luggage, delay flights, explain fees and bump passengers. In the past few years, airlines have sought to profit from hidden fees for baggage, meals, pillows and reservation changes. Consumer groups have raised a fuss to Washington, saying as fees have increased airline customer service has declined. Baggage fees have risen as high as $35 dollars, even though airlines lost more than 2.1 million bags in 2009 and more than 2 million in 2010. More than 65,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped from overbooked flights in 2010. At major airports, passengers are confined to their seats for hours during flight delays.

New airline passenger protection rules

Soon airlines will have to refund baggage fees if the bag is lost. Airlines will have to prominently disclose online all potential fees, including fees for baggage, meals, canceling or changing reservations, or advanced or upgraded seating. Airlines and ticket agents must refer passengers before and after purchase to up-to-date baggage fee information and to include all government taxes and fees in every advertised price.

New rules double the possible compensation for passengers bumped from overbooked flights. Currently, bumped passengers are entitled to compensation equal to the value of their tickets, up to $400 if the airline is able to get them to their destination within a short period of time, or up to $800 for longer delays. Soon bumped passengers subject to shorter delays will receive up to $650, while longer delays can bring payments up to $1,300. An existing four-hour limit on tarmac delays for domestic flights set in 2009 now covers international flights at U.S. airports, with exceptions allowed only for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons.

Airlines threaten higher prices

During a public comment period last year on the proposed new airline passenger protection rules, The Air Transport Association called the full-fare disclosure requirement “likely illegal” and that the full set of new rules will increase costs for airlines which they will pass along as higher prices for passengers. LaHood said he hoped airlines would come to understand that their customers deserve to be treated with respect and get the service they are paying for.


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