Aug 4, 2022 - Health

Transportation Department proposes airline traveler protections

A traveler sits at San Francisco International Airport in California on June 13, 2022. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Department of Transportation on Wednesday proposed new protections for travelers, including requiring airlines to provide vouchers that don't expire to passengers unable to fly for pandemic-related reasons.

Why it matters: If enacted, the change would be one of the most extensive overhauls of travelers' rights and airline refund rules.

Details: The department is proposing various changes aimed at both U.S. and foreign air carriers and ticket agents.

  • Under the proposed rules, passengers will be eligible for cash refunds if their flight is delayed by 3 or more hours for domestic itineraries or 6 or more hours for international flights — even if the ticket was purchased as non-refundable or if the delay was outside the airline's control.
  • Airlines will issue vouchers with no expiration dates to passengers who can't travel due to COVID-19 or other communicable diseases. This includes if they're sick, if there's a stay-at-home order or if borders close.
  • If the carrier or ticket agent received significant financial assistance from the government as a result of a public health emergency, they'll have to provide refunds instead of non-expiring travel vouchers or credits.

By the numbers: Taxpayers have given U.S. airlines $54 billion in COVID-19 government assistance, Reuters reported.

  • American Airlines and Delta each received around $12 billion, and United Airlines got about $11 billion.
  • The rule would only apply to airlines that receive new assistance after the proposal is finalized.

What they're saying: The department said it has been flooded with complaints about air travel services since the onset of the pandemic.

  • “When Americans buy an airline ticket, they should get to their destination safely, reliably, and affordably,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement Wednesday.
  • “This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines.”

Meanwhile: The proposal outlined that airline representatives "cautioned that overregulation in this area may result in the elimination of that lower-priced fare product" during an Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee meeting.

Where it stands: The proposal will be open for public comments for 90 days, including at an Aug. 22 virtual meeting.

  • The Transportation Department will then weigh the comments before finalizing the proposal.
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