Passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled may soon receive better treatment
Janet Bednarek does not work for or consult with, hold shares in, or receive money from any business or organization that could profit from this piece and has not disclosed any affiliations that go beyond their academic position.
Limits of Rule 240
Ralph Nader’s suit, in which he was unsuccessful in ending the practice of overbooking flights, made clear that there were regulations in place for passengers bumped off flights due to overbooking. However, those regulations didn’t cover passengers whose flights were delayed or canceled.
There was something called Rule 240. In the context of the Civil Aeronautics Board’s oversight over U.S. airlines, airlines were required to provide information about every aspect of their operation, including flight cancellation and delay policies. This information was typically included in the required documents as part of Rule 240. However, every airline had to decide its cancellation and flight delay rules by Rule 240. Airlines were not required to pay compensation for passengers in any specific way but were required to disclose their policies.
When U.S. airlines became deregulated in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, a lot, but not all, had the same clauses that they earlier submitted for approval to Civil Aeronautics Board in their carriage contracts, including the “fine print” associated with airline tickets. Many carriage contracts stipulated that in the event of delays or cancellations, a company would either reserve a passenger for its next available flight or put them on the next flight with another airline that could get passengers to their destination earlier.
Rule 240, or the equivalent in the carriage contract, differs for each airline and mainly focuses on changing the passengers’ schedule. Certain airlines offer hotels and meal vouchers in certain circumstances, but only if the issue is triggered by the airline, not due to the weather or a strike. Consumer advocates advise passengers to use Rule 240, but airlines typically only provide what they stipulate in their contracts of carriage.
Southwest Airlines canceled over 2,500 flights per day in early December of 2022, leaving many customers in the middle of the night. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
For a passenger bill of rights
In recent years consumers, consumer groups, and even confident lawmakers have pushed to incorporate more extensive air passenger protections into federal law.
In December 2006, American Airlines held passengers on an aircraft on the tarmac in Austin, Texas, for eight hours without water or food. A passenger on the flight, Kate Hanni, petitioned Congress to pass a comprehensive passenger right-to-privacy bill. In response to her plea, The Department of Transportation issued new regulations in 2009, which stipulated that airlines could not keep domestic flights on the tarmac longer than three hours. They also must have access to toilets and water during delays.
The rules were extended in 2011 to pay baggage fees to passengers whose bags were lost, compensate passengers bumped by oversold flights, and boost the power regarding delays on tarmacs to international flights, with an hour-long limit of 4 hours.
In November 2021, Senator. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced Senate Bill 3222 to create an airline passenger rights bill of rights. But it could never reach the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
E.U. opens the way
U.S. passengers flying within the European Union can experience what it’s like when passenger rights are protected by law instead of being at the airline’s discretion.
E.U. law requires that airlines offer passengers a certain level of service, including rebooking flights, food, hotel vouchers, meals, and, at times, cash compensation, which is contingent on the duration of the delay as well as the length of the flight. Every passenger traveling within the E.U. or whose flight lands in the E.U. with an E.U. carrier or departs from E.U. with any airline is covered under the law.
The Biden administration’s proposal will bring U.S. airline protections for passengers more conformity with E.U. where these protections are imposed rather than at the decision that the airlines have. Although likely to be welcomed by passengers, this move will likely face opposition from the airlines with an extensive history of establishing their guidelines.