According to a White House official, President Biden and Transportation Secretary Buttigieg plan to introduce new airline regulations along the lines of Europe’s EU261 compensation rules that require payment to passengers for flight cancellations that are within the carrier’s control as well as in the event of significant delays.
The rulemaking would seek to require airlines to:
- provide compensation, not just refunds and expenses (like hotels and meals)
- make meal or meal vouchers, hotel room nights and ground transportation to and from the hotel mandatory for overnight delays
- provide timely customer service during and after widespread flight disruptions
The Department of Transportation dashboard showing what airlines have committed to for controllable delays and cancellations is going to be updated to “make clear that virtually no airlines offer compensation on top of refunds or amenities.”
The White House plans to argue that this will make air travel better because “one study found that [similar rules in Europe have] led to decreased flight delays in the EU.”
How Much Does The Administration Care About Actually Reducing Delays?
The Department of Transportation, glass houses and all, doesn’t take accountability for air traffic control delays. They can’t staff New York TRACON to 60%, and airlines are cutting back flights to mitigate delays that would be caused by the Administration. And there’s little being done to add runways and taxiways at major airports, or increase the throughput of congested airspace
There is no serious effort to reform FAA air traffic control, and no compensation when delays are the result of their failures.
Taking these things seriously would make air travel better – it would support more passengers and more flights and actually reduce delays.
Reasons For Concern Over Changing Delay Incentives
In the U.S. the ‘deal’ has been that airlines make best efforts to get customers where they’re going. Not doing so is costly to their operation, and they don’t make money. Usually that works pretty well.
Changing this deal – to where customers are owed more than a refund – could also lead to both fewer delays you do want and more delays that you don’t:
- It’s also a concern that airlines would see much higher costs from delaying a flight. Sometimes you want them to be extra careful. You don’t want to discourage airlines from taking those delays. Europe’s experience though cuts against this concern.
- This could hand additional power to pilot unions who can slow down an airline and delay flights by working to rule, writing up non-critical items. Mechanic unions can slow down repairs and paperwork as well. In both cases the airline would bear significant cost and you’d see more delays.
This Isn’t Happening Right Away – If It Happens
Last summer the Department of Transportation proposed rules for when airlines have to provide refunds not just for cancellations but also when a customer doesn’t fly during the pandemic, or when the airline changes the aircraft operating their flight. Then in September they published a rulemaking on fee disclosure that’s a bit more of a mess, handing power to major airlines against online travel agencies and to shut down consumer sites they don’t want to work with.
These rules have not been finalized. The DOT first has to consider, amend and respond publicly to comments on their rules. It’s unclear when consumer compensation rules would be either – in fact it might require a Biden second term to see them through to publication, so view this as part of a re-election strategy targeting middle class frustrations.