>Q: I've been reading news reports of the new U.S. Department of Transportation regulations protecting airline passengers. Are the rules in effect now? I think some of them are long overdue. Will the airlines try to fight some of them and will they lead to higher airfares or other unintended consequences?
A: The rules go into effect 120 days after being published in the Federal Register. It's likely that the airlines won't be too happy with some of them, especially the one that requires all airfares to be advertised with all taxes included, but eventually most of these regulations will go into effect. They will indeed result in added expense to the airlines, and therefore it's likely that these costs will be passed on to consumers.
For readers who haven't seen the regulations, here they are in brief with my thoughts about them, plus an additional rule that I think we need.
1. Refund of bag fees if luggage is lost.
This is an absolute no-brainer and too bad the airlines had to be regulated into doing this. If you send something by FedEx and it's an hour late past the promised delivery time, you get a refund no questions asked. Disappointed that the rule doesn't include delayed bags -- just lost ones. It should have included delayed as well.
2. Full disclosure of all fees on websites.
In fact, if you know where to look, most airlines have already done this, but the fees aren't all on one easy-to-find page. Ryanair in Europe actually has had this for years -- a link to all its fees, clearly spelled out. U.S. airlines need to do this too. It will lead to better customer relations.
All fees, including frequent flyer fees, bags, online booking, changes, pets, infants and whatever else, should be clearly organized in one place. Whether they should be displayed at check-in counters is another matter.
3. Involuntary bumping payment increased.
Even $1,300, the new maximum, won't compensate someone who missed a $10,000 cruise, or forfeited a $5,000 vacation and missed two days of work plus other expenses. We would rather have seen some mechanism for passengers who incur enormous financial loss because of a bump situation to get compensated fairly. The good news is that relatively few passengers are involuntarily bumped each year (about 65,000 in 2010).
4. Tarmac delay rule extended to international flights.
Good idea. Overdue. Airlines and airports are getting their act together and developing strategies to offload those passengers who wish to return to the terminal in the event of long tarmac delays. Remember, the rule does not say a flight has to be canceled. Just that you have to give whoever wishes to return to the terminal the chance to do so.
5. Requiring taxes to be shown in all advertised fares.
This seems unfair to us. So now should restaurants add the meal and or sales tax to all menu prices? Should the local electronics retailer include sales tax on their television ad prices? Hotels? Rental car companies? Why are airlines being singled out?
We do think that any fare that requires a round-trip purchase be listed in ads only as a round-trip fare. But requiring taxes to be listed is discriminatory and will be a nightmare for the airlines (especially since some taxes vary depending on connecting city and routing).
6. One regulation we need: compensation for schedule changes made long after you bought your ticket.
You buy a ticket in April and in October the airline tells you they don't fly that route anymore, but you can buy a new fare on another airline for three times the price or get your money back. No. The original airline should put you on the alternate airline at the same price you paid.
You buy a nonstop flight but the airline switches you to one making two connections at the same fare. No. A hamburger is not the same as a filet mignon.
Your airline used to fly daily from a city but now does so only three times a week. Five months after buying your fare and making land arrangements that are nonrefundable, you have to buy two nights' hotel at your own expense to wait out the next departure home. No. The airline should pay for the hotel.
>Q: We were shocked to learn that our 1-year-old child, who will be sitting on my lap on an international flight, and not taking up a seat, will be charged $400. What's this all about? The airline representative we spoke to was unable to give a satisfactory response.
A: Unfortunately, most airlines now charge 10 percent of the adult fare for lap children on international flights (not domestic ones -- not yet, anyway), plus any fuel surcharge, plus international taxes and inspection fees. It doesn't seem fair, since the child isn't taking up any room on the flight, although one could argue that each passenger presents an insurance liability in the case of an accident or injury, and the crew might be busy warming formula bottles and so on. Even if you're flying on a frequent-flyer ticket, your lap child will have to pay 10 percent of what your ticket might have cost, plus fuel and taxes. If you're in business or first class, that cost could be very high indeed.
More from George Hobica at www.airfarewatchdog.com.