Airlines Enforced to Refund Delayed Flights Under New Biden Regulations

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Sweeping changes are taking wing within the aviation industry as the Biden Administration delivered new regulations on Wednesday, compelling airlines to pull further out of their pockets for delayed flights and refashion their policies for disclosing ancillary fees. The Department of Transportation steered this shift in policy, asking airlines to ensure the automatic dispensation of cash refunds for these inconveniences experienced by passengers.

The timeframe for issuing these refunds is, according to the policy modifications, to be within a few days after a flight cancellation or a substantial delay. As it stands in the current climate, airlines hold the cards when it comes to determining how long a holdup must endure before the trigger is pulled on refunds. The trailblazing regulations, however, knock out this variability, drawing a clear line in the sand: for domestic flights, a delay of three hours or more breaches the threshold, while for international flights, it sits at six hours.

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That said, the new mandates permit airlines to propose alternate options such as offering a different flight or a travel credit to passengers. However, these offers hinge on the consumers’ acceptance, marking a new degree of agency for them in these circumstances.

Further, these regulations will hold sway over refunds related to checked-bag fees. A delay of 12 hours in delivering a bag for domestic flights or 15 to 30 hours for international ones, will require a refund. In addition, refunds will be obligated on other services too, such as seat selection or in-flight internet, should the airline fail to deliver.

Amidst the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, grievances over refunds surged as numerous flights were grounded, and others deterred passengers, fearing the close quarters of air travel. Airlines for America, an umbrella union for major U.S carriers, remarked on this uptick, albeit noting a sharp decrease in such complaints since mid-2020. The union voiced that its airlines offer an array of options, with full refunds inclusive, to uphold air travel accessibility and assist customers in tailoring their travel needs.

They further highlighted that the 11 premier US-based airlines have handed out $43 billion worth of refunds to customers from 2020 through 2023.

The Department of Transport issued separate directives necessitating airlines and ticketing agents to disclose upfront what they levy for checked and carry-on baggage and fees for altering or canceling a booking. These disclosures must be apparent on the airline’s website the first time a customer sees a price and a schedule.

Most importantly, the rule mandates airlines to assure passengers that they are guaranteed a seat for which no extra payment is necessary. They are, however, still permitted to charge for specific sought-after seats such as those near the exit and those closer to the front.

The department estimates these proposed changes will net consumers savings surpassing $500 million per year. Airlines for America retorted, claiming its members already provide transparency and an extensive choice to their customers, right from their first search.

These freshly minted rules will be gradually ushered in over the next two years. They are part of a concerted effort by the Biden administration to clamp down on what President Joe Biden brands as “junk fees”. On this front, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg affirmed last week his department’s intent to deputize state officials in 15 states to enforce federal airline consumer protection laws.