The airline system is melting down, so maybe we could at least get paid


Flying sucks. On the one hand, it still feels sort of miraculous to climb into a metal tube and be whisked across the country, flying hundreds of miles per hour through the clouds. But on the other hand, almost everything about that experience is bad and is getting worse over time.

The question of who should pay for airfare when things go awry has been lingering in the air for a while now. The obvious answer is the airlines, but the major carriers have been resistant, preferring instead to make passengers pay for all their own accommodations when flights get delayed or canceled. But that way of doing things may be coming to an end.

The question of who should pay for airfare when things go awry has been lingering in the air for a while now

Airlines would be responsible for refunding passengers for hotels, meals, and other expenses when their flights get delayed or canceled under a new proposal from the Biden administration. The push comes after a series of spectacular high-profile meltdowns from Southwest Airlines and other carriers that left thousands of passengers stranded during busy travel seasons.

The number of flight cancellations has been steadily rising over the last four years (not including 2020 because of covid).
Image: The Verge, via Bureau of Transportation Statistics

“This rule would, for the first time in US history, propose to require airlines to compensate passengers and cover expenses such as meals, hotels, and rebooking in cases where the airline has caused a cancellation or significant delay,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the overall cancellation rate in 2022 was 2.69 percent, which works out to 181,286 canceled flights. There were 1,376,798 arrival delays in 2022, a rate of 20.46 percent of flights.

“This rule would, for the first time in US history, propose to require airlines to compensate passengers”

Under the new proposal, the US Department of Transportation is expanding the Airline Customer Service Dashboard at FlightRights.gov, which shows which airlines offer compensation when flights are delayed or canceled. According to the Department of Transportation, the following categories are now being added:

  • Cash compensation when cancellation or delay results in passenger waiting three hours or more from the scheduled departure time;
  • Travel credit / voucher when cancellation or delay results in passenger waiting for three hours or more for scheduled departure time; and
  • Frequent flyer miles when cancellation or delay results in passenger waiting for three hours or more for a flight from the scheduled departure time.

As to the question of who gets what, how much, and when, a lot will come down to how the department defines “controllable cancellation and delay.” The definition will be in the official rulemaking when it comes out eventually, but the overall purpose is to force the airlines to improve their on-time performance figures.

Currently, no airlines provide cash compensation for preventable cancellations or delays. Some will guarantee frequent flyer miles or hand out travel credits or vouchers. There is no legal requirement in the US for airlines to provide cash compensation for delays or cancellations, but the European Union requires that airlines pay up to 600 euros.

Of course, the airline industry hates this idea and will be lobbying vigorously against it. Airlines for America, which represents most of the major carriers, told Reuters that US airlines “have no incentive to delay or cancel a flight and do everything in their control to ensure flights depart and arrive on time, but safety is always the top priority.”

This is the Biden administration’s latest attempt to reform air travel after catching flack for a series of recent flight meltdowns. Most recently, a proposal was introduced to force airlines to refund passengers for services they paid for that aren’t actually provided, like broken Wi-Fi.



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