Passengers whose flights are canceled or delayed may soon get better treatment in the US

Passengers whose flights are canceled or delayed may soon get better treatment in the US

U.S. airline passengers at the beginning of 2023 experienced the highest number of delays on flights since 2014. The increased number of delays was evident shortly following the month of December 2022, in which Southwest Airlines experienced epic chaos, resulting in the cancellation of 71 percent of the flights it operated.

In reaction, on May 8th, 2023, 2023 the Biden administration announced new regulations which will oblige airlines to pay compensation to passengers who are affected by cancellations of flights or are significantly delayed due to factors – other than bad weather that is within the control of airlines. In the new regulations, airlines will be required to provide meals vouchers, overnight lodging as well as ground transportation from hotels if customers are stuck.

If passed, these new rules will provide U.S. passengers with rights and protections that are more comparable with the rights and protections currently offered to passengers from Europe, Canada, and the European Union and Canada.

As an assistant professor of the field of history who studies American aviation, I’m aware that consumer groups have advocated for more rights for passengers airlines within the U.S. since at least the beginning of the 1970s, in the year Ralph Nader sued an airline for denying him a seat on an unbooked trip. The majority of the time, particularly in the years since the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, these attempts have been unsuccessful, and airlines were able to establish the rules and implement their regulations.

Limits of Rule 240

Ralph Nader’s lawsuit, which was unsuccessful in bringing an end to this practice, pointed out that there were rules already in place for passengers who were bumped off flights due to overbooking. These regulations, however, did not apply to passengers whose flights were delayed or canceled.

However, there was something called Rule 240. In the context of the Civil Aeronautics & Space Board’s oversight of U.S. airlines, airlines were required to provide details on every aspect of their operation, including their cancellation and flight delay policies. In the required documents, the information was typically provided as part of Rule 240. However, every airline had to decide its individual flight delay and cancellation policies based on Rule 240. Airlines were not obliged to compensate passengers in any specific way. However, they were required to specify what their policies were.

When U.S. airlines became deregulated in the latter part of 1970 and the 1980s, many but not all included the clauses they had submitted previously for approval to the Civil Aeronautics Board in their contracts of carriage which was included in the “fine print” associated with tickets to airlines. A lot of carriage contracts included that, in the event of delays or cancellations, a company would either reserve a passenger for its next available flight or transfer them to an alternative flight that could get passengers to their destination earlier.

Rule 240 or the equivalent in the carriage contract The rules vary by airline and is primarily focused on changing the schedule of passengers. Certain airlines offer meal vouchers and hotel accommodations in certain circumstances, but only when the issue is caused by the airline and not a complication like the weather or a strike. Consumer advocates urge passengers to use Rule 240, but airlines typically only provide what they stipulate in their carriage contract.

Southwest Airlines canceled over 2,500 flights per day in the early December of 2022, which left numerous customers unaffected over the Christmas season. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Demand a bill for the rights of a passenger of rights

In the last few years, consumer advocacy groups and certain lawmakers have tried to incorporate more extensive protections for air passengers into federal law.

In December 2006, American Airlines held passengers on planes on the tarmac of Austin, Texas, for eight hours with no liquid food and water. Kate Hanni, a passenger on that flight, campaigned for Congress to approve a broad passenger rights bill. In response to the petition, The Department of Transportation did issue new regulations in 2009, which stated that airlines were not allowed to hold domestic flights on asphalt for more than 3 hours. They also had to provide access to restrooms and water in the event of delays.

The rules were extended in 2011 to provide reimbursement for baggage charges to those whose bags have been lost, to increase compensation for passengers who have been bumped due to oversold flights, and to extend the rule on delays to the tarmac for international flights and with an hour-long limit of 4 hours.

In November 2021, Senator. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced Senate Bill 3222 to establish a passenger rights bill of rights. However, it did not make it through the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

EU sets the stage

U.S. passengers flying within the European Union can experience what it’s like when passengers’ rights are protected by law instead of being leaving it to the airline’s discretion.

EU laws require that airlines offer passengers certain levels of service, including rebooking flights and meals, hotel vouchers, and, at times, cash compensation, which differs based on the length of the delay as well as the travel distance. Any passengers traveling within the EU or whose flight lands in the EU via an EU carrier or departs from the EU using any carrier are covered by this law.


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