Botched flight? New rules would ensure ticket refunds for cancellations

  • Travelers check in for flights at O'Hare International Airport's Terminal 3. The federal government is proposing new rules to make it easier for passengers to get refunds when flights are canceled or changed significantly.

      Travelers check in for flights at O'Hare International Airport's Terminal 3. The federal government is proposing new rules to make it easier for passengers to get refunds when flights are canceled or changed significantly. John Starks | Staff Photographer, July 2022

 
 
Updated 8/15/2022 6:20 AM

Relief may be in sight for suburban travelers angsting over flight switcheroos with no recourse.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and lawmakers are proposing new rules to ensure passengers get refunds for flights that are canceled or significantly changed.

 

The move comes amid a turbulent summer with airline staffing shortages, storms and a surge in travelers that have combusted into sky-high cancellations and delays.

Back in 2019, refund issues represented about 10% of complaints to the Department of Transportation; by mid-2021 that number had risen to 84%, the agency reported.

"Thousands of families in my district simply want to take a hassle-free vacation. Other people want to travel for business without having to worry about flight cancellations," said U.S. Rep. Jesus Chuy Garcia, a Chicago Democrat whose district includes parts of Elmhurst.

He's a co-sponsor of The Cash Refunds for Flight Changes bill pending in Congress.

"Customers whose plans have been abruptly upended deserve to receive cash refunds instead of company credit or miles they may not be able to use," Garcia said.

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Airlines diverge wildly on what a "significant change" means, so the government wants to define it as revising departure or arrival times by three hours or more on domestic flights and six hours on international flights, changing airports, adding one or more connecting flights, and switching aircraft if it causes a noticeable downgrade for passengers.

This spring, Ellen Mauer of Libertyville had to race through the Dallas airport to catch a connecting flight home from Mexico. What made it worse was her original ticket was nonstop and she couldn't get a refund.

Regarding the proposed fix, "I love the idea as long as it really is what they say it is," Mauer said. "I'd want to read the rules and regs very carefully to be sure."

The Cash Refunds for Flight Changes bill is similar to the Department of Transportation's new rules; both were announced this month. The legislation also proposes refunds for flyers who cancel their tickets up until 48 hours before departure.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The new rules proposed by the DOT represent important consumer protections, but to make these protections permanent, Congress must codify them into law," said Garcia.

Not everyone's elated.

"Speaking broadly, we do not believe further regulation in this area is required," said Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents multiple major airlines.

The proposed rule "is an outcome of the extraordinary events of the past two years when the COVID-19 pandemic and governments' response led to the near shutdown and collapse of the airline industry. During this period, airlines did their best to compensate their customers for flights that could not be operated largely owing to government restrictions, at a time when such obligations ran into the tens of billions of dollars globally," Flint said.

A hearing on the Department of Transportation policy is set for today. The public has through Oct. 31 to comment.

To learn more or record a response, go to transportation.gov/airconsumer/latest-news.

One more thing

Passenger misery occurs when "demand is very high. They don't have enough pilots trained to do the flying yet they build the schedule right to the maximum. That's a catalyst for additional cancellations," said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association representing American Airlines pilots.

It starts with "management selling tickets they cannot realistically fly," the Arlington Heights pilot explained.

Schedules are so tight that numerous flights are being canceled because of pilot fatigue, Tajer added. "I've never seen anything so inconsistently uncertain and underperforming in the airline business as I've seen this summer," he said.

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom has said "we're sizing the airline for the resources we have available and the operating conditions we face, and we'll make other changes as needed," a spokesman noted.

Gridlock alert

Sorry, Buffalo Grove. Half Day Road will close Aug. 22 at the CN tracks for repairs to the railway crossing. The project should wrap up Aug. 28, and detours will be posted.

You should know

How about a walking/cycling path connecting the Skokie Valley Bike Path and the North Branch Trail (at the Chicago Botanic Garden) that would run along Lake-Cook Road in Highland Park and Northbrook?

The Lake County Division of Transportation is studying the idea and wants your input. To learn more, go to lake-cook-bike-path-lakecountyil.hub.arcgis.com.

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