Over the past three years, passenger protections have slowly but surely made their way through the rulemaking process in Washington, DC. New tarmac-delay rules have been instituted and have eliminated much of the tarmac-delay issues. But, the Department of Transportation (DOT) didn’t stop there. The last of the most recent rules are coming into effect. These new rules, six of which are listed below, have changed the landscape of passenger protections.

    1. The right to change your mind
    2. The right to know how much your checked baggage will cost
    3. The right to know baggage charges on code-share flights
    4. The right to know the full price of an airline ticket
    5. The right to know about delays and cancellations
    6. The right to not pay more after your ticket purchase

      Let’s go through each of these new “rights” accorded passengers by the DOT rulemakings.

1. The right to change your mind
There is now a 24-hour window for passengers to hold or cancel a reservation without payment or penalty for reservations made a week or more before the departure date.

This means passengers have a 24-hour grace period to search for a better flight, change misspelled names, check for mistaken itineraries or simply cancel the flight with a full refund, not airline script.

2. The right to know how much your checked baggage will cost

Unfortunately, this rule about knowing the cost of checked baggage only comes into effect after airline tickets are purchased. Airlines now must include the passenger-specific and flight-specific baggage fees on flight itineraries after the airfare is paid. And, it is not totally in effect, depending on interpretations.

Code of Federal Regulations Title 14, Chapter II, Subchapter A, Section 399.85 – Notice of baggage fees and other fees.
(c) On all e-ticket confirmations for air transportation within, to or from the United States, including the summary page at the completion of an online purchase and a post-purchase email confirmation, a U.S. carrier, a foreign air carrier, an agent of either, or a ticket agent that advertises or sells air transportation in the United States must include information regarding the passenger’s free baggage allowance and/or the applicable fee for a carry-on bag and the first and second checked bag. Carriers must provide this information in text form in the e-ticket confirmation. Agents may provide this information in text form in the e-ticket confirmations or through a hyperlink to the specific location on airline websites or their own website where this information is displayed. The fee information provided for a carry-on bag and the first and second checked bag must be expressed as specific charges taking into account any factors (e.g., frequent flyer status, early purchase, and so forth) that affect those charges.

In this day and age of baggage fee exceptions — frequent flier rules and credit card benefits and shared records — knowing how much you will have to fork over to check your first and second bags is helpful.

Unfortunately, as I learned the Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protections meeting, the airlines still haven’t developed full technology to provide “specific charges.” Passengers will still have to do some detective work and click through several screens depending on the airline. But, it is a good start and when technology catches up to the airlines’ manic fee spree, consumers will already have a rule in the books.

The Consumer Travel Alliance is working to bring this same disclosure of baggage fees to passengers before they purchase their tickets, so that flight- and passenger-specific extra baggage fees can be compared across airlines prior to purchase.

3. The right to know baggage charges on code-share flights

In this world of codesharing and airline alliances, baggage fees have become as confusing as flight numbers. When a passenger purchases a ticket on a Delta flight, however the actual transportation is on an Air France or KLM or other carrier even though the flight has a Delta flight number, there were no rules as to what baggage fees applied.

Now, thanks to DOT, passengers know that their baggage fees will be according to the baggage rules of the “marketing carrier.” This means that Delta’s baggage charges and rules apply.

Code of Federal Regulations Title 14, Chapter II, Subchapter A, Section 399.87 – Baggage allowances and fees.
For passengers whose ultimate ticketed origin or destination is a U.S. point, U.S. and foreign carriers must apply the baggage allowances and fees that apply at the beginning of a passenger’s itinerary throughout his or her entire itinerary. In the case of code-share flights that form part of an itinerary whose ultimate ticketed origin or destination is a U.S. point, U.S. and foreign carriers must apply the baggage allowances and fees of the marketing carrier throughout the itinerary to the extent that they differ from those of any operating carrier.

Obviously, there will be some problems with this issue, since airlines flying from, let’s say, Paris to Milan, may apply their own rules and claim that Delta has nothing to do with that flight even though the flight may be ticketed with a Delta flight number.

In those cases, where passengers booked with a Delta flight number are charged additional baggage fees above and beyond those of Delta’s, consumers can now request a refund from Delta. It’s not perfect, but now there is a baseline for baggage fees on international codeshare flights.

4. The right to know the full price of an airline ticket
Airline advertising now must include all mandatory taxes and fees. This means, rather than seeing an airfare marked with an asterisk that refers to several lines of hard-to-read taxes and fees, the advertised price must include the taxes and fees that will be included upon purchase.

On domestic flights, the additional taxes and fees may be as little as $10 or $20. It is with international flight that the exclusion of taxes, surcharges and fees becomes misleading and deceptive to a larger degree.
The price on Orbitz (Jan. 23rd) for a flight from Boston to London Heathrow departing on April 17th and returning April 24th is advertised with a $130 round-trip airfare! After airlines, airports and governments add on another $622 in taxes and fees, the total cost is $752.

Orbitz screen detail, January 23, 2012, $130 airfare + $622 taxes and fees

Priceline.com BOS-LHR display on Jan. 26, 2012 — much more honest and clear

Is it honest advertising to advertise a flight from Boston to London for $130 when the lowest cost to travel would be $752? I think everyone would agree that it is not.

Unfortunately, the slew of “optional fees,” especially such as baggage fees and seat reservation fees that can add more than a hundred dollars to the cost are still concealed from airline shoppers unless they do some digging. The airlines are not making comparison shopping easy when it comes to examining the full cost of travel across airlines, including optional fees. And, yes, consumer groups are encouraging DOT to mandate that airlines disclose, at least, baggage and reservation fee information before consumers have to press the “buy” button.

5. The right to know about delays and cancellations

We have all been at airport gates when delays are announced. Many times we learn that a flight has been delayed and then get no further information. Lines of passengers begin asking the gate agent (if there is one) about the delay. New DOT rules now require airlines to inform passengers about delays within 30 minutes of when they learn about them and then regularly during the delay.

Code of Federal Regulations Title 14 › Chapter II › Subchapter A › Part 259 › Section 259.8
…about a change in the status of a flight within 30 minutes after the carrier becomes aware of such a change in the status of a flight. A change in the status of a flight means, at a minimum, cancellation of a flight, a delay of 30 minutes or more in the planned operation of a flight, or a diversion. The flight status information must at a minimum be provided in the boarding gate area for the flight at a U.S. airport, on the carrier’s website, and via the carrier’s telephone reservation system upon inquiry by any person.

6. The right to not pay more after your ticket purchase
Once a passenger purchases an airfare or tour, the operator cannot increase the price at a later date.

Code of Federal Regulations Title 14, Chapter II, Subchapter A, Section 399.88 – Prohibition on post-purchase price increase.
It is an unfair and deceptive practice … to increase the price of that air transportation, tour or tour component to a consumer, including but not limited to an increase in the price of the seat, an increase in the price for the carriage of passenger baggage, or an increase in an applicable fuel surcharge, after the air transportation has been purchased by the consumer, except in the case of an increase in a government-imposed tax or fee. A purchase is deemed to have occurred when the full amount agreed upon has been paid by the consumer.