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Outside editorial: Making the skies friendlier

Posted: May 9, 2011 - 8:54pm

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

The skies haven’t been very friendly of late, but maybe that’s about to change.

The Transportation Department has finally announced a new and long-needed set of passenger-friendly regulations that should provide a measure of relief over some of the most frequent and frustrating practices of commercial airlines. That includes endless waits over delayed flights and lost baggage.

The new regulations, alas, won’t go into effect until Aug. 23 — very late into the summer flying season — but at least airlines have been put on notice that they’re expected to do better. This is the first good news the flying public has had in months.

• First came the December blizzard that stranded packed airplanes on the tarmac in New York City for up to 11 hours while passengers begged for relief, to no avail.

• That was followed by the startling series of reports about federal air traffic controllers snoozing in the control tower while pilots frantically tried to get clearance for landing.

• In another incident, inattentive controllers were blamed for a near-miss between an airplane and an official White House flight carrying first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president.

• Then the top of a passenger airliner peeled off in midair like a tin can, frightening passengers who didn’t expect a high-altitude ride with the top down.

Granted, some of these situations are unusual. But passengers deserve a break, and they’re finally getting it in a variety of ways.

New federal regulations will simplify air travel. They require airlines to hold reservations at the quoted fare without payment or cancellation (or penalty) for at least 24 hours if the reservation is made one week or more before departure. Full disclosure of all fees, including taxes, is mandated in advertised fares. The rules require airlines to promptly notify consumers of delays of over 30 minutes, as well as cancellations and diversions. Post-purchase fare increases are banned in most cases unless they are due to government-imposed taxes or fees.

Lost luggage is an experience guaranteed to make passengers boiling mad. Most airlines charge for checked baggage, but when they lose the bags they get to keep the fees anyway. Under the new rules, they must refund the fees for lost baggage. Airlines are already required to compensate for permanently lost luggage for amounts of up to $3,300 on domestic flights.

Under the new rules, unreasonably long delays should be less frequent. Domestic and foreign carriers are banned from keeping passengers on the tarmac for more than four hours without the opportunity to disembark safely, if conditions permit. Passengers have the right to get food, water, working bathrooms and necessary medical attention after two hours.

Consumer advocates report that last year some 65,000 passengers were bumped involuntarily. When the new rules go into effect, the amount of money passengers are eligible to be compensated for will be doubled, up to a maximum of $650 for “short” delays or four times the value (up to $1,300) for delays that cause late arrivals of two hours or more on domestic flights.

The new rules don’t guarantee a problem-free flight, but they make bad experiences less likely because violations will affect the bottom line for airlines. If all else fails, consumer advocates suggest that filing a complaint with the government at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov will usually get a response. Here’s to happy — and safe — travel.

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