Legal Insights

A Passenger’s Bill of Rights

By: February 8, 2017

Domestic traveler rights fall under three areas: federal laws, airline regulations and airline policies. Most airlines maintain a “contract of carriage” agreement between itself and travelers who fly on their airlines available through their website. A free mailed copy may be requested from individual airlines that maintain a contract of carriage. A contract of carriage often describes refund policies, check-in requirements, delayed flight procedures, and other important information regarding an airline. The Department of Transportation (DOT) also has a helpful resource from the Aviation Consumer Protection’s Division available on its website called Fly-Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel. The DOT guide discusses topics like flight delays, cancellations and travel scams, while covering rules for consumer complaints.
Many current federal protections for airline passengers were enacted in 2009 when DOT issued its rules on “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections.” DOT is tasked with ensuring consumers are protected from “unfair or deceptive practices” and that airlines provide “safe and adequate service” to consumers in interstate flights. DOT rules were enacted after a series of domestic flight delays while passengers were on board, some for periods in excess of 10 hours.
2009 federal passenger protection rules addressed ground delays, required airlines report habitually delayed flights, and required heighten consumer disclosures. The 2009 rules were expanded in 2011, when DOT enhanced airline passengers’ rights in the event the airline they book through oversells seats and expanded on how to deal with flight delays and cancellations. Additional requirements included that the airlines must give consumers access to sufficient, accurate information at the time of selecting a flight. Information required for disclosure before booking include blatantly describing the total cost of a flight, with all government and airline taxes and fees.
In 2016 further rule changes were enacted. These changes fell under the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016. The 2016 extension did not, however, expand on multiple consumer centric topics, like requiring airlines disclose code-share arrangements for domestic flights, passenger compensation in the event of over sale of a flight, or transparency in ancillary flight fees that have become unbundled (e.g. baggage fees). DOT did not agree with prior proposals requesting removal of the requirement that airlines keep cost information prominently displayed. The fear was that a removal of fee disclosure requirements could have permitted airlines to advertise base airfares, even when consumers would be unable to buy airline tickets at those prices. Code share flights, or when a commuter plane may be used for a connection flight (generally happens in small cities and is indicated by a 4 digit flight number), can still create an issue. However, if indications of a code share flight present themselves, then a passenger is entitled to further information from the airline. The act did have some provisions on passengers’ rights and strengthened statutory basis for certain existing DOT rules.
The 2016 act extension included language to better define excessive tarmac delays, while adjusting how to measure such delays. The change in measurements could provide leeway to how airlines manage flight delays. It is worth noting, however, that airlines still maintain significant control over how they manage delayed flights and bumping passengers from over-booked flights, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Either way, consumers should be cautious when planning their travel, especially in peak seasons, to account for delays. One way to do this is to review consumer reports through the DOT that disclose the number of delays an airline experienced over a certain period. That said, the impact of these measurements is not fully reported yet in current Air Travel Consumer Reports available from the DOT.

Presently, a maximum civil penalty of $32,140 per violation may be assessed against airlines in violation of the 2016 act. Although it is noted that small businesses and individuals in violation face a maximum penalty of $1,414 in general, up to $12,856 per violation over discrimination, and up to $3,214 for violations based on unfair or deceptive practices.

Small businesses and individuals that work with the travel industry should ensure they know which regulations pertain to their activities and be familiar with non-compliance penalties as well as the overall consumer complaint procedure. Consumers should familiarize themselves with specific airline policies pertinent to them and with general information in the DOT’s consumer guide. This way, if an individual believes an airline acted inappropriately, they will know when it is something to file a complaint over, negotiate with the airline directly, or just accept as a cost of being a consumer.