Buttigieg urges airlines to improve refund policies

The Transportation Department is directing airlines to come up with plans for improving their customer service following flight delays and cancellations or face the department implementing its own rules.


What You Need To Know

  • The Transportation Department is directing airlines to come up with plans for improving their customer service following flight delays and cancellations or face the department implementing its own rules
  • In letters to airline CEOs this week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote that “the level of disruption Americans have experienced this summer is unacceptable”
  • Buttigieg says, at minimum, the airlines should provide free meal vouchers for delays of three or more hours and lodging accommodations when passengers are stranded overnight
  • He also said the Transportation Department is launching a website Sept. 2 to serve as a one-stop shop with easy-to-understand information about the airlines’ various policies on refunds and vouchers.

In letters to airline CEOs this week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote that “the level of disruption Americans have experienced this summer is unacceptable.” He cited DOT data showing that 24% of domestic flights operated by US carriers were delayed and 3.2% were canceled in the first six months of 2022.

“As you know, these aren’t just numbers, these are missed birthday parties, graduations, time with loved ones and important meetings,” Buttigieg wrote.

The transportation secretary urges the airlines to evaluate their customer service plans to ensure they are helping customers who experience lengthy delays or cancellations with expenses. Buttigieg says, at minimum, the airlines should provide free meal vouchers for delays of three or more hours and lodging accommodations when passengers are stranded overnight.

NBC News was the first to report on the letter Friday. In an interview with the “Today” show, Buttigieg said, “The message to the airlines is that you’ve got to make it easier for passengers to understand their rights, and you’ve got to support passengers when they experience delays or cancellations .

“I’m giving them an opportunity to raise the bar,” he added.

In a statement emailed to Spectrum News, Airlines for America, the trade group representing major US carriers, said its members “strive to provide the highest level of customer service and look forward to working with the DOT to continue providing transparency for the traveling public. “

The airline industry has said it’s experienced a number of challenges, including a tight labor market, as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and tries to meet pent-up demand. It also has noted that weather and shortages of air traffic controllers were responsible for nearly two-thirds of cancellations in the first five months of the year.

Airlines for America said its members “comply with federal laws and regulations regarding cash refunds.” It said US airlines issued $ 21 billion in cash refunds in 2020 and 2021.

Carriers are only required by law to provide refunds when flights are canceled or significantly changed. They sometimes provide meal vouchers and hotel accommodations, but generally deny requests when they deem the issue was out of their control, including weather, which can have residual impacts on flight crews and schedules in cities where there are no weather concerns.

Earlier this month, the Transportation Department announced a proposed rule aimed at strengthening protections for airline passengers seeking refunds. The rule would more clearly define the terms of a significant flight change or cancellation so that passengers would be eligible for refunds if their flights are delayed several hours, there are changes to the departure or arrival airports, there are changes to the number of connecting flights , and there are changes to the aircraft type that causes a significant downgrade in amenities, such as first class.

The DOT is currently accepting public input on the proposal.

Buttigieg also revealed in his letters to CEOs that the Transportation Department is launching a website Sept. 2 to serve as a one-stop shop with easy-to-understand information about the airlines’ various policies on refunds and vouchers.

The transportation secretary did compliment the airlines on the steps they’ve taken this summer to reduce delays and cancelations this summer, including by trimming schedules to better match capacity, stepping up hiring and placing a greater emphasis on customer service.

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