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What should airlines offer you when flights are delayed and canceled?

A family waits with their luggage for a flight to Chicago after it is canceled.
Kyrianna, Te’Shawn and Brandon Hill, from left, with their mother Katyra Henderson-Hill, wait for a flight to Chicago at Los Angeles International Airport after Spirit Airlines canceled 313 flights in August 2021. Flight delays and cancellations have been on the rise for months.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

If your flight is canceled, you should be able to use your ticket to fly on a different airline to reach your final destination.

If your trip is delayed, the airline voucher you receive should have no expiration date.

If there’s foul weather or a mechanical problem that threatens to delay or cancel your flight, airlines should have enough staffing to keep things on schedule.

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These are among more than a dozen ideas passenger rights advocates are suggesting federal regulators impose on the nation’s airlines in response to the growing anger among travelers who have suffered delays and cancellations. There’s plenty of anger to go around, considering 24% of domestic flights were delayed and 3.2% were canceled over the last six months.

And it’s likely that at least some new rules to make life easier for passengers will be adopted.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced in a recent letter to the nation’s 10 biggest airlines that the rise in disruptions is “unacceptable,” and he is considering imposing rules “that would further expand the rights of airline passengers.”

In the Aug. 18 letter, he didn’t specify what kinds of rules he might impose, but he urged airlines to at least give meal vouchers to passengers whose flights are delayed for three hours or more and lodging accommodations if a delay or cancelation forces fliers to wait at an airport overnight.

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What kinds of services or amenities stranded passengers get vary by airlines, and the carriers don’t make such policies easy to find. In his letter to the carriers, Buttigieg promised to publish by Sept. 2 an online “dashboard” that explains the policies each airline follows for treating passengers when delays or cancellations are within an airline’s control. The dashboard is being created, he said, “to ensure the traveling public has easy access to this information.”

In a statement, Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the nation’s largest airlines, said carriers are working hard to overcome the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a “tight labor market.” The group declined to speculate what kind of rule Buttigieg might propose.

“Carriers 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 statement said, referring to the Department of Transportation.

The nation’s airlines have been under fire for several months, primarily because of a rise in delayed and canceled flights just as air travel demand has begun to rebound from the pandemic slowdown that saw bookings drop by nearly 90%. Since April, the Transportation Security Administration has been routinely screening more than 2 million passengers per day — nearly on par with screening numbers before the pandemic.

The surge in booking comes despite airfares that are nearly 17% higher than last year, according to a study by Valuepenguin.com, a financial analysis website.

Airlines have put part of the blame for the delays and cancellations on a pilot shortage, air traffic control problems and bad weather. But several airline executives have acknowledged that they scheduled thousands of additional flights to cash in on the rising demand this summer even though they haven’t hired back enough staff since the pandemic slowdown to operate all the flights.

Passengers are not happy. The number of complaints about airline service filed with the Department of Transportation jumped 237% in May, with 4,344 complaints, up from 1,289 complaints received in May 2019.

The department has already proposed a rule to make it easier for fliers to get a refund. The current rule requires U.S. airlines to pay refunds and flight vouchers for cancellations and “significant changes” to flight schedules but does not clearly define “significant changes.” As a result, refund policies vary among the airlines.

The proposed rule defines a “significant change” as a change to the departure or arrival time by three hours or more for a domestic flight or six hours or more for an international flight. The definition of “significant” also includes a change to the departure or arrival airport, an increase in the number of connections and a change to the type of aircraft if it means the passenger’s experience is downgraded.

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Passenger advocates and members of government advisory panels say the rule change that would most help alleviate the pain of delays and cancellations is requiring all airlines to adopt what is called in the industry “interlining agreements.” Under such agreements, an airline that has stranded passengers at an airport because of a delay or cancellation can put them on a plane operated by a rival carrier. The agreements between the airlines spells out the financial settlement for such flights.

Interline agreements were common before the industry was deregulated in 1978 and have now fallen out of favor, especially among low-cost airlines whose pricing models differ so much from those of traditional carriers that they avoid such agreements, according to industry experts.

“Interlining agreements make a lot of sense,” said John Breyault, vice president of the National Consumers League and a member of the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee, which advises the secretary of Transportation. “Now, if a carrier cancels a flight, you miss a funeral or a wedding, you are out of luck. With an interline agreement, consumers are not put in that untenable situation.”

Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, a nonprofit passenger advocacy group, agrees, saying: “I would like to see more interline agreements. That would be a big help.”

The interline agreement idea was among 17 proposed rule changes listed in a June 24 letter to Buttigieg by Flyersrights.org, a nonprofit passenger rights group with more than 60,000 members.

The group also would like the Transportation Department to discontinue flights that are chronically delayed, temporarily lift the mandatory retirement age of pilots from 65 to 68 to provide the industry with more pilots, and require airlines to keep enough reserve staff on hand to operate flights when staffing, equipment or weather problems arise.

Another proposal: Require that airlines answer phone calls from passengers within 30 minutes or face the threat of having the airlines grounded.

Paul Hudson, president of Flyersrights, said passengers are frustrated that it takes the federal government months or even years to adopt such rules. He suggests Buttigieg adopt some of his group’s proposals on an emergency basis while a final rule goes through the regular process.

“The suggestions we are making won’t make change in weeks, but maybe they will in months,” Hudson said.


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