Federal government urged to address rampant flight cancellations, ensure proper refunds

STATEN ISLAND, NY — As airlines continue to cancel and delay thousands of scheduled flights each day, the federal government faces increasing pressure to address the issue and hold airlines accountable for disrupting Americans’ travel plans.

On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Leticia James penned a letter to US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to crack down on airlines that have been selling seats on flights without the requisite workforce to staff them, resulting in a high number of cancellations.

“Airlines knowingly advertising and booking flights they do not have the adequate staff to operate are flying in the face of the law,” said James. “Travelers are forced to miss important events, pay more, or change their entire travel plan because airlines are failing at their most basic functions.”

Over the first six months of 2022, roughly 2.8% of all scheduled US flights have been canceled, while an additional 20.2% have been delayed, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware.

The issue has been particularly problematic for local travelers, with New York City’s regional airports seeing some of the highest summer cancellation rates in the country, with Newark Liberty International ranking first in cancellations, LaGuardia ranking second and JFK International ranking ninth.

In the letter, James urged the FAA to implement stricter regulations that would only allow airlines to advertise and sell tickets for flights that they currently have the adequate personnel to staff.

The attorney general also implored the FAA to require airlines to provide refunds in the event of a cancellation or delay and additional compensation for associated costs, such as payments for hotel stays, taxi fares, car rentals and gasoline.

“The skyrocketing number of flight cancellations and delays in airports across the country is unacceptable, and travelers have endured too much confusion and frustration. I urge the US Department of Transportation to increase its oversight and regulation of airlines that are skirting the rules and causing disruptions. for travelers,” James said.

GUARANTEEING CASH REFUNDS

The high number of canceled flights has been front and center in recent weeks, with a group of federal lawmakers introducing the Cash Refunds for Flight Cancellations Act, which would codify an existing rule requiring airlines to offer full cash refunds if the airline cancels or significantly delays a flight, or if the customer cancels his or her ticket up to 48 hours in advance.

While federal law already requires airlines to provide cash refunds, many offers to rebook passengers or provide a voucher as the default refund option, requiring customers to jump through hoops to get their money back.

The legislation, if passed, will require airlines and ticket agents to offer a full cash refund within 30 days of a canceled or significantly delayed flight, or if the customer cancels their flight more than 48 hours in advance.

Airlines and ticket agents will still be able to offer vouchers as an alternative, but must include a “clear and conspicuous notice of the flyer’s right to a cash refund.”

The right to a full cash refund would need to be disclosed to the customer prior to purchasing their ticket.

Upon cancellation or significant delay, airlines and ticket agents would again need to remind customers of their right to a cash refund.

If a refund is not provided within 30 days, the airline or ticket agent would be subject to a $1,000 fine.

“Enough is enough: Travelers are sick of wasting their valuable time fighting the airlines to receive their legally-required cash refunds,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). “And they are tired of making flight reservations months in advance, only to face a health scare that forces them to choose between canceling a nonrefundable flight, or traveling and risking the health of their fellow passengers.”

US DOT RULE PROPOSAL

On Wednesday, the US Department of Transportation announced a proposed rule for public comment that would better protect airline customers in the event of a canceled flight.

The proposed rule would provide specific definitions for the terms “significant changes” and “cancellation,” which are currently undefined in existing rules. As a result, airlines have used the ambiguity of the terms as justification for not issuing refunds.

Under the proposed rule, significant changes to a flight would include:

  • Changes that affect the departure and/or arrival times by three hours or more for a domestic flight or six hours or more for an international flight;
  • Changes to the departure or arrival airport;
  • Changes that increase the number of connections in the itinerary;
  • Changes to the type of aircraft flown if it causes a significant downgrade in the air travel experience or amenities available onboard the flight.

The term canceled flight would be defined as “a flight that was published in a carrier’s Computer Reservation System at the time of the ticket sale but was not operated by the carrier.”

The proposed rule would also require airlines to provide credits or vouchers that are valid indefinitely to any customers that cancel their tickets due to coronavirus pandemic-related issues.

Additionally, airlines that have received significant coronavirus pandemic relief funds from the government would be required to issue cash refunds, as opposed to credits or vouchers.

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