DOT Proposal for Strengthened Protections for Air Ticket Refunds Open for Comments

After getting flooded during the pandemic with complaints about airlines from consumers with non-refundable tickets, the US Department of Transportation announced this month a proposed rule that would make significant changes to airline ticket refunds.

DOT on Aug. 22 then held a virtual public meeting of the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee to discuss the proposal, which was met with concerns from the Travel Management Coalition, composed of large US travel management companies.

BTN reached out to multiple airlines for comments and was directed to the industry advocacy group Airlines for America, which replied that its “member carriers comply with federal laws and regulations regarding cash refunds.” The organization also shared that since the start of the pandemic, US airlines have issued $ 21 billion in cash refunds, including $ 12.84 billion in 2020 and $ 8.18 billion in 2021, compared with $ 7.46 billion in 2019.

In addition to the meeting, the proposal was entered into the Federal Register on Aug. 22, giving the public the chance to comment for a 90-day period, which ends on Nov. 21. As of noon, Aug. 25, there were just six formal posted comments; however, when accessed through the site, 24 comments had been uploaded, and another 558 related comments made after DOT’s initial notification on Aug. 3 also were accessible.

Refund Proposal Details

DOT for years has required airlines and ticket agents to refund travelers if airlines cancel or significantly change their flights, however the terms “significant change” and “cancellation” had not been defined, according to DOT, resulting in inconsistency among airlines and their refunds.

The proposed changes would define those terms and codify DOT’s “interpretation that a failure to provide refunds when a carrier cancels or significantly changes a flight to, from, or within the United States is an unfair practice.”

The definition of a “significant change” includes changes that affect the arrival or departure times by three hours or more for a domestic flight and 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, and changes to the type of aircraft flown if it causes a significant downgrade in the air travel experience or amenities onboard the flight.

The definition of a canceled flight would mean one that was published in a carrier’s reservation system at the time of sale but was not operated by the carrier, according to DOT.

In addition, the proposal would require that airlines and ticket agents provide passengers with flight credits or vouchers that are valid indefinitely when passengers are unable to fly for certain pandemic-related reasons, such as government-mandated bans on travel, closed borders or passengers advised not to travel to protect their health or the health of other passengers. Further, airlines and ticket agents that receive “significant government assistance related to a pandemic” would be required to issue refunds in lieu of non-expiring travel credits or vouchers.

Comment on the proposed refund rules.

This link will take you to the Federal Register for formal comments.

Minimum Airplane Seat Sizes

The DOT proposed refund rules were announced about a week after the US Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice for public comments on minimum airplane seat sizes necessary for the safety of air passengers. Congress had ordered the FAA to establish minimum dimensions for airplane seats in 2018, however the agency did not comply.

The current standard for emergency evacuations is 90 seconds, including crew members. Some passenger advocates argue that as seat sizes have gotten smaller and average body sizes have gotten larger, it’s become a safety and health hazard.

“Our estimate is that only 20 percent of the population can reasonably fit in these seats now,” president Paul Hudson told USA Today. “It’s beyond a matter of comfort, or even emergency evacuation, there are serious health and safety issues when you’re put in cramped conditions for hours on end.”

The FAA request, entered into the Federal Register Aug. 3, asks for comments on seat width, seat pitch (the space between rows), seat length and “other seat dimensions” and whether they “have or demonstrably could adversely affect” the safety of passengers by delaying an emergency evacuation.

As of Aug. 25, people had left 11,159 formal comments. The comment deadline for the seat size proposal is Nov. 1.

Comment on airplane seat size.

This link will take you to the Federal Register for formal comments.

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