Department of Transportation to propose requirements for airlines to compensate stranded passengers

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The Department of Transportation announced Monday its plans for a new rulemaking process requiring airlines to compensate passengers whose flights were delayed or canceled.

The proposal would require airlines to provide compensation and cover expenses for amenities, including meals, hotels and rebooking flights, when airlines are deemed responsible for stranding passengers at an airport, the news release stated.

The DOT said it has worked to improve passengers’ travel experiences for the past two years, adding that the ten largest airlines now guarantee meals and free rebooking on the same airline, and nine guarantee hotel accommodations as part of the Department’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard. 

The department’s dashboard at FlightRights.Gov was expanded Monday to show passengers which airlines offer cash compensation, provide travel credits or vouchers, or award frequent flyer miles when flight delays or cancellations are caused by the airline.

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“When an airline causes a flight cancellation or delay, passengers should not foot the bill,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in the release. “This rule would, for the first time in U.S. history, propose to require airlines to compensate passengers and cover expenses such as meals, hotels, and rebooking in cases where the airline has caused a cancellation or significant delay.” 

The proposed rulemaking would address compensation for passengers when there is a controllable airline cancelation or significant delay, such as a meal or meal voucher, overnight accommodations, ground transportation to and from a hotel, and rebooking for controllable delays or cancelations. Timely customer service during and after periods of widespread flight irregularities would also be addressed.

The exact definition of a controllable cancellation or delay has not yet been provided by the DOT.

American Airlines planes in Miami, Florida

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Categories added to the Department’s Commitments for Controllable Cancelations and Controllable Delays include cash compensation, travel credit or voucher or frequent flyer miles when a cancellation or delay forces a passenger to wait for a flight for three hours or more from the scheduled departure time.

One airline currently guarantees frequent flyer miles and two airlines guarantee travel credits or vouchers as compensation if passengers experience significant delays or cancellations caused by mechanical issues or other aspects within the airline’s control. No airline guarantees cash compensation when an airline issue causes passengers to be stranded.

The department’s rulemaking attempts are aimed at ensuring passengers experiencing controllable delays and cancellations are better protected from financial losses, according to the news release, adding that it believes the new guidelines could improve on-time performance. 

Similar policies requiring additional compensation for passengers already exist in Canada and the European Union, according to the DOT, which also cited a study that found compensation for inconvenience has led to decreased flight delays in the EU.

southwest airlines plane at gate

Last year, Buttigieg penned a letter to airlines urging them to improve their customer service plans before the release of the Airline Customer Service Dashboard. 

Before his letter, none of the 10 largest U.S. airlines guaranteed meals or hotels when the airline caused a delay or cancellation. Now, all 10 guarantee meals while nine guarantee hotel accommodations when an airline is at fault for stranding passengers.

Other moves made in the past two years include issuing the largest fines in the history of the department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection to help hundreds of thousands of passengers receive millions of dollars in compensation.

The DOT has also proposed a rule to refund passengers when services they paid for are not actually provided, such as broken Wi-Fi.

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