USDOT proposes new refund protections for cancelled, changed flights

As American travelers battle a brutal stretch at airports, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) announced Wednesday a proposed rule being put out for public comment that it says would significantly strengthen protections for consumers seeking refunds for airline tickets.

The department said it is responding to a flood of complaints from consumers with non-refundable tickets because airlines canceled or significantly changed their flights, or because of COVID-related concerns.

Last month, NJBIZ chronicled the situation at Newark Liberty International Airport as a slew of challenges collided with pre-pandemic demand, resulting in some of the highest percentage of cancellations and delays in the country.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was in the Garden State for the Aug. 1 groundbreaking for the new Portal North Bridge in Kearny. Read more. — EDWIN J. TORRES / NJ GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

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

Currently, airlines are required to refund travelers if they “cancel” or “significantly change” passengers’ flights. But the Department says those terms have not previously been defined, resulting in inconsistencies about when passengers are entitled to refunds.

The department said that the proposal would codify its longstanding interpretation that it is unfair practice for any failure by an airline to provide refunds when they cancel or significantly change flights within the United States.

Working it out

For the first time, USDOT is also looking to better define the terms “cancellation” and “significant changes.”

The proposal says that “significant changes” would include those that affect departure and/or arrival times by three hours or more for a domestic flight, or six hours or more for an international flight; updates to the departure or arrival airport; alterations that increase the number of connections in the itinerary; and revisions to the type of aircraft flown if it causes a significant downgrade in the air travel experience or amenities available onboard the flight.

Meanwhile, under the proposal, a “cancellation” would be characterized as any flight that was published in the carrier’s Computer Reservation System at the time of the ticket sale but was not operated by the carrier.

On Aug. 22, the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee will hold a virtual public meeting on the matter. Additionally, the department is encouraging members of the public to submit comments on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

While Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the nation’s largest carriers, did not have an official statement on the proposed rule, a spokesperson stressed that carriers comply with federal laws and regulations regarding cash refunds.

“Carriers strive to provide the highest level of customer service and are committed to working with travelers to address their individual circumstances,” the spokesperson told NJBIZ.

Since the onset of the pandemic, US airlines have issued $21 billion in cash refunds, including more than $8 billion in 2021 and nearly $13 billion in 2020.

In a blog post last month, Airlines for America conceded that there are ongoing challenges related to the pandemic.

“The learning curve to our nation’s ‘new normal’ is steep, and US airlines are adapting and implementing long-term solutions as quickly as possible to ensure smooth operations. We acknowledge that our work is not done which is exactly why we will continue listening to our customers and acting to show our commitment to safety, service and you,” the post said.

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