Coming Soon: More Airline Passenger Rights

There were two types of airline passengers during the worst of the recent winter’s brutal weather: the ones who faced almost no risk of being stranded on the tarmac, and the less-fortunate who had to take their chances.

The group leading a charmed life traveled on domestic flights, while the others flew internationally.

Things should be different next year. This week, the Transportation Department announced an expanded set of passenger-rights rules, building on regulations that went into effect last year. The new requirements include reimbursement of the baggage fees airlines charge for any luggage that becomes lost, full and clear disclosure of all fees, higher compensation for passengers bumped from over-sold flights and, perhaps most important, new rules for international flights including a four-hour limit on tarmac wait time.

I wrote last year about the success of the regulations limiting domestic tarmac waits to three hours, with food and water mandatory after two. Reports of tarmac times over the limit have dropped to single digits since. Even with the rough winter weather most of the country faced this year, stranded domestic passengers could at least wait inside heated terminals with functional bathrooms, vending machines and places to stretch their legs.

Those travelling internationally weren’t so lucky. In late December, inclement weather created a huge backlog at John F. Kennedy International Airport, leading to passengers who were stuck in planes for many long hours, some overnight. According to The New York Times, passengers on Cathay Pacific Flight 840 from Hong Kong didn’t get to a gate until nearly 11 hours after touching down. Some passengers reported running low on food and water, while others were given conflicting information about the cause and potential duration of the delay.

Kate Hanni, the executive director of the passenger advocacy group Flyers Rights, predicted then that “This JFK event, I’m almost certain, will be the tipping point.” Time has proven her right; the DOT press release announcing the new rules cited the JFK delays as “an important factor in the Department’s decision to extend the tarmac delay provisions to foreign air carriers and establish a four hour tarmac delay limit for international flights.” Hanni herself founded Flyers Rights after a nine-hour domestic delay in 2006 – the sort of delay that the DOT rule has made a rarity.

Just as they did when the first round of restrictions was imposed last year, airlines have complained that the new rule will result in more outright cancellations, with the added threat of longer on-ground delays for more infrequent flights on international routes. Despite grumbling from airlines, however, it doesn’t seem that there has been a substantial upswing in domestic cancellations so far. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote last month in The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., that only 44 more flights had been cancelled after a two-hour delay (the cancellations most likely to be actively avoiding the tarmac rule) this year than last. “When you consider that there are 8.7 million domestic flights in any given year, an increase of 44 cancellations is hardly significant,” LaHood pointed out.

While it is true that international flights often run less frequently than their domestic counterparts, a plane flying international routes will hardly sit stranded at a U.S. airport for any longer than an airline can help. Airlines found ways to pick up the slack on domestic routes when last year’s rules took effect. I expect the same thing will happen with international travel now that airlines face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger on planes that exceed the tarmac-delay time limit.

Even if international cancellations do increase, a longer delay is worth not having to spend four hours or more trapped in a grounded aircraft. The bottom line is that leaving passengers marooned among snow drifts – or in scorching heat, for that matter – is dangerous and unacceptable. It should not be allowed, and now, it isn’t.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.