Federal Proposal Targets Airline Refund Policies

Rules would mandate passenger refunds for delays, itinerary changes

By Matt Neistei

Published August 8, 2022

Read Time: 2 mins


Amid a summer filled with cancellations, delays, lost baggage and more, the U.S. is looking to its counterparts in Europe for ways to protect passengers encountering travel headaches on commercial flights.

The federal Department of Transportation is proposing what has been referred to as a “passenger bill of rights” that would clearly define situations and actions that would require airlines to issue refunds and other compensation to customers.

“When Americans buy an airline ticket, they should get to their destination safely, reliably, and affordably,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines.”

Right now, each carrier determines what its customers are entitled to receive in the case of cancellations or other travel disruptions, and there is no law requiring them to do so.

The DOT proposal would apply to the following situations:

  • Delays of three hours or more for domestic flights, or six hours or more for international flights, for either departures or arrivals.
  • Changing the passenger’s departure or arrival airport.
  • Involuntary class downgrades, such as business to economy.
  • More connections added to the trip after the initial booking.
  • A change in the aircraft type operating the flight that has a “significant downgrade of the available amenities and travel experiences.”

Similar rules were passed by the European Union nearly 20 years ago, and consumer advocates, lawmakers and others have been calling for the U.S. to follow suit ever since.

Last year, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced legislation called Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

Difficulties related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the faster-than-anticipated rebound in passenger traffic were apparently the tipping point for federal action, according to a DOT statement.

“Since early 2020, the Department has received a flood of air travel service complaints from consumers with non-refundable tickets who did not travel because airlines canceled or significantly changed their flights or because the consumers decided not to fly for pandemic-related reasons such as health concerns,” the agency said.

The announcement came just days after a bicameral group of lawmakers introduced the Cash Refunds for Flight Cancellations Act, which covers much of the same ground.

Rep. Mike Doyle, whose district includes the city of Pittsburgh and suburbs south and east of the city, is a co-sponsor of the legislation.

“Airlines ought to be held accountable when they make major changes to itineraries or cancel flights that are inconvenient for their passengers,” Doyle told Blue Sky News. “Moreover, now that it’s clear that COVID will be with us for the foreseeable future, it’s important to enable airline passengers to cancel their flights and get full refunds when they decide their health is at risk if they fly.

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