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U.S. expands protections for airline passengers

Among other changes, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says fines previously imposed on airlines for keeping passengers stranded on delayed domestic flights will be extended to international flights.

April 20, 2011|By Hugo Martín and Julie Mianecki, Los Angeles Times
  • Passengers wait in line at Miami International Airport in March on a day when many flights were delayed or canceled because of a fuel-tank fire. Airlines are not fined for delays caused by safety issues.
Passengers wait in line at Miami International Airport in March on a day… (John W. Adkisson, Getty…)

Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — Frustrated airline passengers who have lost luggage, been forced off overbooked flights and been delayed on international flights may get some relief under tough new regulations announced by federal officials.

The Department of Transportation rules, most of which take effect in August, expand on a set of groundbreaking policies the department adopted last year to penalize airlines that keep passengers stuck on delayed domestic flights for more than three hours.

"The additional passenger protections we're announcing today will help make sure air travelers are treated with the respect they deserve," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday.

Among other changes, LaHood announced that the fines previously imposed on airlines for keeping passengers stranded on delayed domestic flights will be extended to international flights.

The rules also increase to $1,300 from $800 the maximum compensation airlines must pay a passenger who has been forced to give up a seat on an overbooked flight. Airlines will also be required to prominently disclose all extra fees on their websites and reimburse baggage charges to passengers whose bags are lost.

Passengers and passenger-rights groups praised the new rules, saying they were needed to keep airlines from mistreating passengers.

Joyce Cavarozzi, 79, a business traveler from Kansas visiting Washington, said she had seen the quality of airline service decline over the last few years and supported new government regulations on the industry.

"If you don't behave responsibly yourself, it's like your parents," she said. "They've got to tell you to behave responsibly."

A trade group for the nation's largest airlines said the airline industry had made great strides in improving passenger service in the last few years and believed that more government regulations were not needed.

"Market forces, not additional regulations, are already providing customer benefits," said Nicholas E. Calio, president of the Air Transport Assn.

Delta Air Lines, the nation's second-largest carrier, said it had voluntarily adopted many rules to improve its service. For example, the airline already offers a rebate to passengers whose bags are lost or not returned within 12 hours, said Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter.

LaHood's department adopted a rule last year that fines airlines up to $27,500 for every passenger on a domestic flight who is stranded for more than three hours without being allowed to return to the terminal. Under the newest rules, the same penalty would apply to airlines that keep passengers stranded on an international flight for more than four hours.

The new rule came partly in response to an international flight that kept passengers on a runway for 11 hours during a blizzard in December at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

In the past, airlines have opposed such rules for international flights, saying they could not return to the terminal those foreign passengers who had already cleared customs and immigration checks. The Transportation Department said it was working on procedures to allow airlines to accomplish this.

Since the fines for domestic flights were imposed last April, delays of more than three hours have dropped dramatically. From May 2010 to February 2011, there have been only 16 delays of more than three hours, compared with 664 such delays in the same period a year earlier.

The Transportation Department, which exempts airlines from fines for delays caused by safety issues or by air traffic controllers, has yet to impose one of the new higher fines.

Airlines are allowed to oversell a flight to make up for passengers who don't show up. But they must compensate passengers who are bumped from an overbooked flight as much as $800. Under the new rules, the airlines will have to compensate passengers up to $1,300, depending on how long they are delayed.

LaHood told National Public Radio on Wednesday that his department stepped in to impose the rules because the airlines would not do it on their own.

"Competition has not taken care of these problems," he said. "We would not be addressing them if competition had done that."

Kate Hanni, who became a passenger-rights advocate after being stuck on a plane for nine hours during a storm in Texas in 2006, called the new rules "a sea change in terms of how airline consumers are treated and how airlines operate."

The Global Business Travel Assn., a Virginia-based trade group that represents corporate travel managers, praised the requirement that airlines disclose extra fees on their websites but said it wanted airlines to distribute fee information to all booking agents to make it easier to compare prices.

"This is essential to give business travelers and their companies the information they need to make well-informed decisions," said Michael W. McCormick, director of the association.

Mary Anderson, who was flying to New York from Washington after a business meeting Wednesday, said passengers had been victimized by the airlines for too long.

"Once you enter the terminal building until you get to your destination, you have to accept what they give to you and you don't have any say in it," she said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

julie.mianecki@latimes.com

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