Proposed airline rules for canceled and delayed flights would help consumers enormously

Media Contacts

The White House and Department of Transportation (DOT) on Monday announced proposed new rules that would require airlines to compensate customers when flights are canceled or significantly delayed, and it’s the airline’s fault. 

The new rules would require airlines to do more to cover travelers’ expenses for rebooking, hotels, ground transportation and meals when flights are canceled or delayed by three hours or more. The rules would also address providing timely customer service, which was a huge problem during and after the Christmas meltdown, when tens of thousands of flights were canceled or delayed and travelers reported being on hold for 10 hours or more to rebook. 

As we found in our March analysis of data from the DOT, U.S. airlines last year canceled 190,038 flights in the United States, or 2.7% of all scheduled flights. And 1.44 million more flights – 20.6% – were delayed. Setting aside 2020, those 2022 numbers represented the highest number of cancellations and the highest percentage of cancellations since 2001. (Airline travel that year of course was disrupted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.) 

Currently, when a cancellation or delay within the airlines’ control delays a passenger by three hours or more:

  • All of the top 10 carriers will rebook a passenger on their own airline and provide money or a voucher for meals.
  • With a controllable cancellation, six will rebook a passenger on a partner airline or another airline with which it has an agreement, at no additional cost to the customer: Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue and United. But four will not rebook with another airline: Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest and Spirit.
  • With a controllable delay, five will rebook a passenger with a partner or another airline with which it has an agreement, at no cost to the customer: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue and United. But five will not rebook with another airline: Allegiant, Frontier, Hawaiian, Southwest and Spirit.
  • All except Frontier will pay for a hotel and ground transportation to and from a hotel when a cancellation or delay within the airline’s control strands a customer overnight.
  • In cases of cancellation or a delay of three hours or more, Frontier will only rebook with its own airline and provide cash or a voucher for a meal.

These are commitments airlines have made so far that become part of its enforceable contract. The commitments are publicly displayed on the DOT website on its Airline Customer Service Dashboard, FlightRights.Gov.

In response, Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog for U.S. PIRG Education Fund, said:

“It’s a shame that the DOT has to consider rules to force airlines to do something that should be the way good companies take care of customers, just because it’s the right thing to do.

“While some flights are delayed because of severe weather, security delays or heavy traffic, the single biggest reason for delays is an issue within the airline’s control, according to the DOT. Examples include maintenance or crew problems, cabin cleaning, baggage loading and fueling. In 2022, issues within the air carrier’s control were the No. 1 reason for delays every month except in July.

“These new rules will be incredibly important changes for consumers, in two ways. First, when airlines cancel or significantly delay flights currently, there really are no consequences for the airline. Sure, they have to refund customers for tickets, but that doesn’t actually cost the airlines anything. These new rules would cost the airlines by forcing them to make customers whole for out-of-pocket expenses, which might motivate the airlines to do a better job of scheduling flights and avoiding cancellations and long delays to begin with. We know that the DOT is investigating four airlines for potential ‘unrealistic scheduling,’ which is considered under federal law to be ‘an unfair and deceptive practice.’

“Second, the new rules would go a long way toward making sure travelers don’t lose money when there are problems that are the airlines’ fault. Cancellations and delays can cost travelers hundreds of dollars to book a last-minute ticket with another airline – if a seat is even available – as well as for hotel bills for overnight delays, meals in the airports, ground transportation and more.

“We know these rules could take many months to take effect. We hope the airlines decide to do the right thing on their own, long before that.”