Biden admin wants airlines to pay for cancellations, delays

The Biden administration plans to propose regulations that would require airlines to compensate passengers and cover their expenses for cancellations and significant delays that are within a carrier’s control. The compensation would come on top of existing refund requirements for canceled flights.

Such rules would be groundbreaking in the U.S. and would move the country in closer alignment with long-standing EU regulations, which require that airlines pay compensation of between $275 and $660 for flights that are canceled or arrive at least three hours late.

“When an airline causes a flight cancellation or delay, passengers should not foot the bill,” DOT secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a prepared remark.

The DOT said it would formally propose the regulations through a rulemaking process, which has not yet begun.

Airlines would have to provide accommodations, meals

In addition to compensation requirements, the rulemaking will propose that in cases of controllable cancellations and significant delays, airlines will be required to pay for overnight accommodations, ground transportation to and from the hotel, a meal and passenger rebooking costs. At present, all 10 of the primary mainline U.S. carriers commit to meal compensation within their contract of carriage, while all but Frontier commit to providing accommodation and ground transportation. But federal regulations would take such decisions out of carriers’ hands.

The upcoming rulemaking, said the DOT, will also seek to better define what exactly is a controllable delay or cancellation. Currently, delays caused by issues such a crew shortages and aircraft maintenance are considered by the DOT to be controllable, while disruptions caused by weather, security concerns or air traffic control challenges aren’t considered to be within an airline’s control. 

In addition, delays caused by an aircraft arriving late to the gate from a previous flight aren’t defined as controllable, even when that late arrival was caused by an issue within the airline’s control. 

The DOT also does not currently have a specific definition for “significant delay,” though in a rulemaking initiated last summer the department proposed that flight schedule changes of more than three hours on domestic flights and more than six hours on international flights be defined as “significant.”

Airlines group says cancellations are low

In a statement Monday, the trade group Airlines for America (A4A), which counts the six largest U.S. carriers among its membership, said that airlines already do everything they can to ensure that flights depart and arrive on time, without compromising safety. A4A provided data showing that the U.S. flight cancellation rate this year is lower than it was in the two years prior to the pandemic, though the delay rate remains higher. Among cancellations since last August, 33.7% were attributable to airlines, while 66.3% were caused by weather, national airspace system delays or security concerns. 

“We look forward to working with the administration to ensure U.S. airspace remains the safest airspace in the world, while supporting robust marketplace competition that provides transparency and vast options for consumers,” A4A said. 

As part of its Monday announcement, the DOT also revealed an expansion of its airline customer service dashboard website to show which airlines have voluntarily committed to providing cash compensation, flight credits or frequent flyer point credits for controllable cancellations or significant delays. 

At present, no airline commits to offering compensation. Alaska and JetBlue have committed to offering flights credits. Alaska has also committed to offering frequent flyer point credits. 

The DOT’s planned airline compensation rulemaking is the latest of several steps the Biden administration is undertaking to strengthen consumer protections for airline passengers. Among other items, the DOT has also proposed broader ticket refund requirements, bag fee refund requirements for late baggage delivery and new ancillary fee display requirements early in the booking path. 

The DOT also plans a rulemaking that would require airlines to enable children to sit with an adult guardian at no extra cost.

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