Vail Daily column: Airline passengers have rights
Something’s up. In the air, in fact. For every disgruntled traveler who has ever been walloped by an unexpected surcharge or hidden fee, been incensed over a lost bag, or bumped ingloriously from a flight, now there’s something you can do. And before arriving at DIA or EGE or ORD or any of the other thousands of airports, large and small, scattered like birdshot all across this great land, here is something you should know: Flyers, despite the cold stares of the penitentiary-faced ticket agents trying to freeze you into calm submission, have rights.
A sort of Bill of Rights, in fact.
And the Flyer’s Bill of Rights which has been around since sometime shortly after Icarus took wing, has recently gotten better.
What you should know is this. Despite the TSA pat-down, nudie-shadow-image indignities, over which there is little you can do, when it comes to dealing with the airlines themselves, you can flex a little muscle.
Warning – this story may get better with the telling, but as I recall it anyway, once, at JFK, we sat on the tarmac for six hours before the bird finally rolled to the head of the line and took flight. That was in the days when airlines served meals (for you younger folks, I’m not kidding, they really did serve full meals with every ticket) and we enjoyed our repast on the relative terra firma of the apron. Six hours of pure, crooked knee delight. Well, not anymore!
Like, Howard Beale in “Network News,” the flying citizenry rose up with a collective “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” And surprisingly, someone was listening. Now, no more meals on the lonely airport apron. OK, no meals at all anymore, but that’s not the point. The point is that passengers can no longer be held like hostages against their will on the tarmac for longer than three hours for domestic flights and four for international flights. After that length of time, they must be set free to prowl the terminal, stretch their collective legs, and breathe the relative fresh air.
What’s more, if passengers are stranded more than two hours on the ground, they must be offered food and drink and the airplane bathrooms must be fully functioning. You may recall the horrors of days not-too-long past when travelers were trapped for half a day, unfed, with overflowing toilets. But, not anymore! If necessary, appropriate medical attention must be provided to a tarmac captive in need.
Breaking the three-hour rule will now cost the offending airline a fine of up to $27,500 per passenger. According to CNN, the average airline on a New York-to-L.A. flight costing an average ticket price of $500 makes a walloping $33 per passenger in profit, so a fine of more than $27,000 seems like a nice little incentive to assure compliance. Of course, the airlines have advised that there will be cancellations caused because of the new rules. Cancellations, they say, that would not have otherwise occurred. A bright light here, though – if a flight is cancelled, the traveler is entitled to a full refund.
As any recent traveler knows, airline “add-on” fees have become insidious. Want to bring some clothes with you on your trip? Fork out $20 or $25 or $30 extra dollars for your first bag, more for the second. Want a blankie? Open your wallet. Need a pillow for your aching neck? Five dollars, please. And what about the taxes, gate fees, take-off and landing fees, fuel surcharges? The list is nearly endless.
But now …
But now, beginning in July or August anyway, when the new rules take effect, the airlines must – get this – actually disclose the fees they intend to charge you. Up front even. At the point of purchase. They have to be transparent, candid, forthright if you like. This will – hold on to your seat now – actually empower travelers to make an apples-to-apples comparison of fares which, before the new rules, was like trying to pick a prom date from behind a curtain.
What’s more – and yes, there’s more – if the airline loses your bag, not only will they have to pay for what was in the suitcase, but they will have to refund you the baggage fee they charged you in the first place. Who’d thunk it?
If you’re bumped from a flight, you will now be compensated the relatively princely sum of between $650 to $1,300 instead of the former, more paltry sum of between $400 to $800. And the compensation policy for bumping – whether voluntary or involuntary – must be conspicuously posted at the gate. No more playing “Let’s Make a Deal” with the gate agent; you’ll know exactly what you’re entitled to.
Delay information will have to be published on the airline’s website and chronically late flights will be subject to fines. If airlines see that a flight is chronically late, they must revise their schedule to more accurately reflect the actual departure and arrival times. Passenger complaints will have to be substantively responded to in not more than 60 days.
Thanks to various consumer groups, the Department of Transportation and the current administration, it will soon to be a brave new flying world out there.
The rub? Well, someone’s going to have to pay for all this. I’ll leave it to you to figure out to whom the airline buck will ultimately get passed.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowner’s associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECO Tv 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.