Flying Still Sucks But Help Is On The Way…Maybe

Air travel has long been something to be endured, but the abysmal performance of airlines since this past spring has turned it into something to be loathed. With all the flight cancellations and delays resulting in missed connections and unacceptably late arrivals, you have no guarantee the plane ticket you carefully selected and purchased will get you to your destination as scheduled. Good luck getting compensated for the added expense of meals and lodging when a one hour delay turns into an overnight ordeal. If your flight is cancelled the only thing you can count on is that you’ll be rebooked. Maybe. It probably won’t be the same day as your scheduled departure, and it might not even be from the same airport, but what can you do?

For now, not much. Travelers are at the mercy of the airlines, but that may soon change. The Department of Transportation is taking steps to hold airlines more accountable for actually delivering the services they promise when they take consumer’s money. It’s a bit late for this summer’s travel season, but it might prevent similar problems next year.

Getting compensated for meals and hotels when you get stuck far from home because of flight delays and cancellations has been a common problem this summer, and it’s a real headache. I’m still waiting to to be reimbursed for meals and the hotel that Lufthansa promised after a flight delay resulted in a missed connection in Frankfurt almost two months ago.

Each airline follows a different set of rules and those rules are so full of exceptions they might as well not exist. To help consumers navigate the tangled web airlines have weaved (woven?), the DoT recently established an airline customer service dashboard. It is designed to help travelers know their rights when flights are delayed, and the DoT is working to make it more difficult for airlines to avoid delivering on the compensation they promise. I am hopeful airlines will soon automate the process, allowing you to request a voucher through their app and then pushing the voucher to you digitally so you never have to wait in line or on hold if you call. They aren’t there yet, but I think that time is coming.

Getting a refund for your flight when it is significantly delayed or when the airline cancels it is another can of worms, but that too may be getting easier. The DoT has released a draft policy that will make it much easier to get a refund for your plane ticket when an airline cancels your flight, even if you booked a non-refundable fare. No longer will you be forced to accept a rescheduled flight that might be several days later than the one you booked, or put up with having your non-stop flight in business class switched to an economy class fare with two connections.

Easier refunds for cancelled flights are a good thing. It means travelers will have the option to make alternate arrangements with another airline without the risk of not getting a refund for the original ticket. Under the proposed policy you can get a refund, or you can opt for future flight credits with the same airline if you prefer. That will be your choice, not the airline’s, and under the new policy, if you opt for flight credits they’ll never expire.

One of the best parts of this new policy is that it removes the excuses airlines have been hiding behind to avoid refunds. There have been plenty of head scratching stories of airlines cancelling flights because of “weather” when the skies are clear and the winds calm. They cite bad weather on the west coast as justification for cancelling flights on the east coast, an excuse that under the current policy takes them off the hook for providing refunds. Lately airlines have taken to blaming the air traffic control system, or local airport operations for cancelled flights…anything to avoid having to give back ticket revenue once they’ve taken your money.

Under the new policy it won’t matter why a flight was cancelled…the airline will be obligated to offer a refund, even if they’ve automatically rebooked you on another flight and even if you purchased a non-refundable ticket. There are rules, but they are reasonable, not loopholes the airlines can hide behind. You won’t be able to demand a refund when you cancel your ticket, but at least when the airline cancels the new policy will ensure you can get your money back.

There are some aspects of the proposal that need more work. In addition to requiring refunds when airlines cancel or significantly delay flights, there are refund provisions for travelers who have to cancel a trip because of illness during a declared public health emergency, or in keeping with public health guidelines. This part of the proposal is intended to deal with highly contagious, serious diseases…like COVID…it won’t cover things like the common cold. In its present form the policy is way too complicated for the average traveler to understand, and I hope the final version gets simplified without sacrificing the protections it seeks to provide.

Another aspect of the proposed policy that I’m not thrilled with has to do with the role travel agencies play in air ticketing. Under the draft policy, travel agents who include air in their bookings would be liable for refunding the cost of that air to clients when their flights are cancelled. That aspect of the policy is intended to target travel agencies that take consumers money, aggregate it, and then use the pooled money to get a better price by purchasing blocks of tickets. Those travel agencies may pass the savings along to their clients, but they may not…the airlines have no way of knowing.

It makes sense for a travel agency to be responsible for returning the money when they’ve taken it for air tickets, and then get reimbursed from the airline when flights are cancelled. It does not make sense to treat all travel agencies like that is their business model, which is what the proposed policy does. At Tidewater Cruise and Travel, we don’t collect consumer money for air bookings…the money goes directly to the supplier or airline we book with. Having to offer refunds when those flights are cancelled would mean having to pay out refunds with money we don’t get and don’t have, and then hope we get reimbursed from the airlines. That’s too much of a risk for our small operation, and it means we would no longer be able to offer courtesy air bookings as we have in the past. The impact on our business would be minimal since most of our clients prefer to book their own air, but it is a change we would rather not have to make just the same.

You can expect to see this new policy published in final form by the end of the year. When that happens and all the revisions are locked in, I’ll revisit the subject in a future post and lay out what it means in simple, non-government language. Until then, we’ll continue to put up with the airlines’ shenanigans. What choice do we have?

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