New airline passenger rights explained, with effective dates

Just-passed federal law and DOT rules require no-hassle refunds, up-front baggage fee disclosure, bans on family seating fees, 24/7 live customer service and more

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Airline passengers soon can look forward to travel that’s a lot less stressful following new consumer protections passed by Congress and the Department of Transportation.

There are 21 “passenger experience improvements” in the new, 170,000-word federal law passed in May, plus additional rules approved by DOT in April. Key changes include:

  • Guaranteed no-hassle refunds for canceled or significantly delayed flights if travelers don’t want rebooked on another flight.
  • Mandatory up-front disclosure of baggage fees.
  • A ban on fees for children to sit with a parent or adult travel partner.
  • Mandatory, 24/7 live customer service.
  • Vouchers that last five years.

HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGES AND WHEN THEY’RE TAKING EFFECT:

No-hassle refunds/vouchers that last five years

Airlines/ticket agents must comply by Oct. 28, 2024

A huge problem erupted in 2020 with COVID-19. The world came to a screeching halt. Airlines canceled hundreds of thousands of flights. Federal law already said passengers are entitled to a full refund when someone other than the traveler cancels a flight.

But there were all kinds of loopholes, primarily:
** Airlines could decide when a refund was warranted.
** Confusion about who owed the refund if passenger purchased a ticket through a traditional travel agent or online ticket seller.
** Airlines had latitude to push customers toward flight vouchers and allowed airlines to slow-walk the refund process.

Not surprisingly, total complaints against U.S. and foreign airlines hit a record in 2020 that still hasn’t been matched. Travelers filed 102,550 complaints; 87% of them because of refunds, or the lack of.

This shouldn’t happen again. The Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden on May 16 clearly spells out travelers’ rights to refunds when airlines cancel or significantly delay flights for any reason – bad weather, equipment, staffing, TSA, etc. (If a traveler cancels or changes her ticket for a flight that actually takes off, that’s a different issue.) The rule actually takes effect June 25, 2024 but compliance isn’t required immediately.

Airlines and ticket agents must comply with issuing refunds by Oct. 28, 2024.

The law says:

  • Travelers are entitled to a full refund including taxes and fees, even on a nonrefundable ticket, on any flight to, from or within the United States that is canceled or significantly delayed. This applies to U.S. and foreign airlines. 
  • “Significantly delayed” is defined as a flight that arrives at its destination three hours or more after the originally scheduled time for a domestic flight, or six hours or more after the originally scheduled time for an international flight.
  • If they want, travelers can accept a ticket for a rebooked flight or the significantly delayed flight instead of a refund. 
  • Or travelers can accept a voucher or credit if offered. But airlines can offer a voucher/credit only if it is good for at least five years and the offer reiterates that consumers don’t have to accept it in lieu of a refund. 
  • For tickets purchased with a credit card, refunds must be issued within seven business days. For tickets purchased with another form of payment (debit card, check, cash,) refunds must be issued within 20 days.
  • The company responsible for issuing the refund is whoever’s name appears on your credit card or bank statement. About 92% of the time, that’s the airline, even when the ticket was purchased through a third party, the DOT says.
  • If a traveler doesn’t respond to an offer of a rebooked or delayed flight or a voucher/credit, a refund will automatically be issued.
  • The law also requires airlines to issue credits or vouchers to travelers who cancel because they’re sick with a serious communicable disease, documented with medical records. Airlines have until April 28, 2025, to comply with this.

It’s expected this will apply only to flights booked after Oct. 28, 2024.

Defining a 'significant' delay

Effective immediately

Travelers have long had rights when flights were significantly delayed, but what’s significant? To some, it might be 30 minutes. To the airlines, it might mean five or 10 hours.

The Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act defines it as a flight that arrives at its destination three hours more after the originally scheduled time for a domestic flight, or six hours or more after the originally scheduled time for an international flight. 

Regardless of the cause of the delay, airlines and ticket agents must comply with issuing refunds for significantly delayed flights — if travelers want them — by Oct. 28, 2024. Travelers may instead choose a ticket for a rebooked flight if it’s offered.

Baggage fee refunds

Airlines/ticket agents must comply by Oct. 28, 2024

The new DOT rule requires refunds for baggage fees when checked bags arrive 12 hours or more late for domestic flights after a traveler’s flight arrives at the gate. For international flights, refunds are due if baggage arrives 15 to 30 hours late, depending on the length of the flight.

The rule actually takes effect June 25, 2024 but compliance isn’t required immediately.

Airlines and ticket agents must comply with issuing refunds by Oct. 28, 2024.

Disclosure of fees for baggage, and canceling or changing a flight

Airlines must comply by April 30, 2025; ticket agents must comply by Oct. 30, 2025

The DOT will require airlines and ticket agents to disclose up front the fees for the first and second checked bags and carry-on bags, and any fee that might come from the traveler changing or canceling the flight.

Airlines must provide the prices by April 30, 2025 before a ticket purchase when someone views flight options or does an online search. The rule applies to U.S. and foreign airlines flying to, from or within the United States, and any time they provide fare and schedule information. Fees must “clear and conspicuous” and can’t require clicking on a hyperlink, but pop-ups are permitted.

Ticket agents must comply by Oct. 30, 2025, except for ticket agents that meet the Small Business Administration definition of a small company. They must disclose the fees by April 30, 2026.

Price disclosure will help travelers price shop and understand final costs, and encourage competition among the airlines, the DOT says.

The entire rule actually takes effect July 1, 2024, but gives six-month, 12-month and 18-month increments for compliance.

Family seating fees

Proposed rules by Nov. 12, 2024

Airlines will be prohibited from charging families extra to guarantee a child 13 or younger will sit next to a parent or adult travel partner.
In February 2023, no airlines guaranteed free family seating and some airlines charged $10 to $50 extra per seat, in addition to the ticket price. Then in March 2023, the DOT started pressuring airlines to accommodate seating young children with their parent or adult travel companion at no extra cost by publicly disclosing who charges and who doesn’t.

As of May 2024, four of the big 10 airlines guaranteed free family seating: Alaska, American, Frontier and JetBlue. Six don’t: Allegiant, Delta, Hawaiian, Southwest, Spirit and United.

The DOT had already planned to work on new rules to require free family seating before Congress included and passed the measure. The bill says proposed rules are due 180 days after this became law. This would be about Nov. 12, 2024. If the DOT proposes rules by then, holds a public comment period and then approves the rules, they could take effect early next year.

See each airline's policy on family seating

Free 24/7 live customer service

Compliance required as soon as Sept. 13, 2024

During Christmas week of 2022, when a nasty winter storm hit parts of the nation, millions of travelers were stranded and unable to reach anyone at their airline for eight to 10 hours or more. That may have been an unusual circumstance but still, it’s not unusual for travelers to have difficulty connecting with a live customer service agent even during slow periods. 

In the bill Congress approved, lawmakers said it’s important for travelers whose flights are canceled or delayed to be able to learn about the status and their options. “Customers should be able to access real-time assistance from customer service agents of air carriers without an excessive wait time, particularly during times of mass disruptions,” the bill said. 

Airlines will be required, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to maintain:

  • A customer service phone line staffed by live customer service agents or 
  • A monitored number that customers can use to text and communicate directly with a live agent or
  • A chat option (presumably through the airline’s app or website) that allows customers to communicate directly with a live agent “within a reasonable time.”

These options must be free. Compliance is supposed to be required within 120 days after it takes effect, which lawmakers’ offices said could considered May 16, 2024. So we could see 24/7 live customer service as early as Sept. 13, 2024 for any airlines that don’t already have it. The law says: “A covered air carrier shall comply with the requirement specified in subsection (a) without regard to whether the Secretary has promulgated any rules to carry out this section as of the date that is 120 days after such date of enactment.”

Dashboards of passenger rights

Already in effect

In the summer of 2022, DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg made a bold move: As people traveling by air for business or personal reasons continued to grapple with unreliable travel and uncooperative airlines, Buttigieg announced that airlines’ policies for accommodating travelers would be posted on the DOT website at flightrights.gov. If one of the 10 largest airlines had a customer-friendly policy for dealing with a particular problem, the airline would get a pretty green checkmark. If it didn’t, it would get a bright red X. 

Examples of policies reviewed included whether the airline would rebook a customer at no extra charge if the delay or cancellation was caused by the airline, such as from a staffing, scheduling or equipment problem. Once an airline notified the DOT it would follow a particular customer-friendly policy, it became binding. 

Other questions asked: If a traveler is stranded overnight and it’s the airline’s fault, will the airline pay for a hotel? Will it provide a meal voucher? 

The Airline Customer Service Dashboard has been a huge success.

Today, all 10 airlines will rebook on their own airline and provide a meal voucher. Six of the 10 will rebook on a competitor’s airline. Nine of the 10 will cover a hotel and pay for ground transportation if a traveler is stranded overnight and it’s the airline’s fault. 

The law guarantees this dashboard will remain online for the public.   

DOT | Public Domain

The 'Support Our Troops' Dashboard

Already in effect

On May 31, 2024, right after Memorial Day, DOT added a section for the airlines’ commitments to “Support Our Troops.”

As of now, there are considerably more red X’s than green checkmarks under this section. 

  • Only three of the airlines – Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit – commit to waiving cancellation fees and guaranteeing full refunds for service members and their families who cancel flights because of a military order. 
  • Those three plus Southwest will waive change fees in cases where a service member needs to rebook a flight because of a military order. 
  • Those same four airlines won’t charge fees for a carry-on bag and two checked bags for service members and their accompanying spouse and children.
  • Only two of the airlines – Allegiant and Spirit – promise to offer the lowest fare for immediate family to visit service members injured in the line of duty.
See each airline's policy to 'Support Our Troops'

New dashboards for seat sizes, flight disruption causes

30 days after enactment, TBD

A new section of information to be displayed: Seat sizes. Each airline will be required to disclose details of seat sizes, including the pitch, width and length of a seat in economy class for the plane models and configurations generally used by the airline.

Another new section to be displayed will be “explanations of circumstances” that will detail when a delay or cancellation is not considered to be within the airline’s control, such as with bad weather or under a directive from the FAA.

 After free family seating takes effect and the DOT eliminates it from the dashboard, the dashboard can spell out up to four types of policies.

Know your rights posters

Within 1 year of enactment, likely summer 2025

Nearly all airports that have scheduled passenger service must “prominently display” posters that spell out a variety of passenger rights under federal law. These include travelers’ rights to refunds and their rights in the event their flight is delayed or a canceled, they’re bumped off an overbooked flight or if their baggage is lost, damaged or delayed.

The posters must be displayed in “conspicuous locations” including at ticket counters, security checkpoints and gates.

Reimbursement for incurred costs

Within 1 year of enactment, likely summer 2025

The DOT must require all airlines that provide scheduled passenger service to devise a policy about covering expenses paid by customers who are affected by a cancellation or significant delay caused by the airline.

Examples of expenses would be for hotel, meals and travel between the airport and hotel. The bill doesn’t specify what those policies must be, but just that they must address reimbursements.

Examples of cancellations and delays caused by an airline: staffing, equipment, scheduling, cleaning the plane and technical/computer issues. Examples of cancellations and delays not generally blamed on an airline: bad weather, security issues and air traffic control delays.

All of the large airlines already have published policies on this, on flightrights.gov. These are binding. The airlines can always update them for newly purchased tickets.

Expanded rights for passengers who use wheelchairs

Proposed rules by about Nov. 16, 2024

There are a dozen sections of the new law passed by Congress that focus on travelers who rely on wheelchairs or scooters, and passengers who have various disabilities.

Key sections require minimum training for airline workers or contractors who help wheelchair users on and off planes, or who handle wheelchairs or scooters and work to store them. Both require DOT to propose rulemaking within six months of May 16, 2024, and issue final rules within 12 months of that date.

The DOT issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that was posted March 12, 2024, that dealt with new standards affecting people who rely on wheelchairs and people with disabilities. The DOT plans to mandate more training for airline employees and contractors who assist travelers with disabilities and who handle wheelchairs. In addition, mishandling a checked wheelchair or other assistive device such as a scooter would be a violation of the Air Carrier Access Act.

Other parts of the law passed by Congress require the DOT to analyze incidents of mishandled wheelchairs and file annual reports about incidents and trends to Congress; issue a public report on disability-related traveler complaints filed with DOT; and start exploring the possibility of wheelchair restraint systems that would allow travelers to stay in their wheelchairs during flights.

Seat dimensions

Proposed rules expected summer 2024

Back in 2018, under that time’s FAA Reauthorization Act, Congress instructed the DOT to establish the minimum seat size necessary for safety reasons. The issue: If the seats are too small without enough legroom, it can be impossible for all of the passengers on a plane to get off in case of emergency within 90 seconds, as required by the FAA.

But DOT didn’t initially pursue minimum seat sizes. It wasn’t until 2022 that the DOT asked for comments on the minimum seat dimensions needed for fast and safe evacuation. Still there was no action.

So in the just-passed FAA Reauthorization, Congress re-upped the ask. It says the FAA “must initiate a rulemaking activity” not later than 60 days after enactment. If the FAA decides not to pursue the rulemaking, it must brief Congress to explain why not.

Tripled civil penalties

Effective immediately

Airlines that violate the law will face increased maximum civil penalties — $75,000 per violation, an increase from the current $25,000. One would think that stiffer penalties would motivate airlines to obey the law.

The penalties will apply to violations that occur after some date to be announced. 

Other, longstanding rights passed years ago

Lost or damaged baggage, including wheelchairs and scooters

Airlines must refund any checked baggage fees, and reimburse you for the lost items. This has been required since 2007. The current reimbursement amount is up to $3,800.

Wheelchairs, scooters and other “assistive devices” count as baggage, but they’re not subject to that liability limit during domestic flights. Whatever it costs to repair or replace it is what you’re entitled to.

“Airlines’ liability for lost or damaged assistive devices is the original purchase price of the assistive device,” the DOT says. “If an airline destroys or loses a $20,000 assistive device during a domestic flight, the airline is liable for $20,000. If an airline damages but doesn’t destroy a $20,000 assistive device, then the airline is liable for the damage up to the cost of original purchase price.”

Involuntary bumping

If you’re involuntarily bumped, airlines must provide you with a list of your rights and compensate you according to how long your flight will be delayed.

  • Less than 1 hour: None
  • 1-2 hours (Domestic): 200% of your one-way fare up to $775
  • 1-4 hours (International): 200% of your one-way fare up to $775
  • Over 2 hours (Domestic): 400% of your one-way fare up to $1,550
  • Over 4 hours (International) 400% of your one-way fare up to $1,550

The airline must offer payment the same day or, if you depart too quickly, within 24 hours.

The issue of denied boarding compensation goes back to the 1960s, under the Civil Aeronautics Board, the DOT’s predecessor in regulating air travel.

Tarmac delays

The rules surrounding tarmac delays passed in 2009. FlyersRights.org was one of the catalysts, after FlyersRights.org’s founder Kate Hanni and her family were trapped in a plane on a tarmac in Texas for more than nine hours in 2006. The passengers didn’t have access to water, food or working restrooms.

Under the rule, airlines are required to:

  • Provide medical attention and working bathrooms the entire time a plane is on the tarmac.
  • Provide food and water after two hours.
  • Get the plane in the air or allow passengers to deboard to the terminal after three hours—or else the airline faces massive fines. In August 2023, for example, the DOT fined American Airlines $4.1 million in connection with tarmac violations. The DOT’s investigation found that , An extensive investigation by the Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (OACP) found that between 2018 and 2021, American allowed 43 domestic flights to remain on the tarmac for lengthy periods without providing passengers an opportunity to deplane in violation of the Department’s tarmac delay rule. DOT found that none of the exceptions to the tarmac delay rule, including the safety and security exceptions, applied to those flights. In addition, on one of the 43 flights, passengers were not provided with food and water as required. Most of the delays occurred at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. The tarmac delays affected a total of  5,821 passengers.for violating federal statutes and the Department’s rule prohibiting tarmac delays of three hours or more on domestic flights without providing passengers an opportunity to deplane. DOT’s investigation found that American kept dozens of flights stuck on the tarmac for long periods of time without letting passengers off. DOT is ordering American to pay the largest fine ever issued for tarmac delay violations and cease and desist from violating the law. This fine is part of DOT’s unprecedented effort to ensure the traveling public is protected, including returning more than $2.5 billion in refunds to travelers.“This is the latest action in our continued drive to enforce the rights of airline passengers,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Whether the issue is extreme tarmac delays or problems getting refunds, DOT will continue to protect consumers and hold airlines accountable.”The $4.1 million fine is the largest civil penalty that the Departhttps://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/dot-fines-american-airlines-41-million-unlawfully-keeping-thousands-passengers-tarmac
Complaints against airlines and others

Airlines are required to give you information on how to file complaints. Airlines must acknowledge written complaints within 30 days and respond within 60 days.

If you don’t get satisfaction from an airline, file an official complaint with the DOT.

To file a complaint against an airline, an airport or a ticket agent, go to https://airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm

For other information about passenger rights, go to https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer

Topics
Authors

Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.