President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg unveiled a proposal on Monday requiring airlines to compensate passengers for major flight delays and cancellations.
The proposed rule would only apply to cancellations and delays within the airlines’ control and would require airlines to provide refunds and compensation to passengers, as well as meals, overnight accommodations and rebooking for passengers stranded by delays.
The administration is also set to mandate “timely customer service” when airlines are confronted with widespread cancellations, a proposal clearly aimed at incidents like Southwest Airlines’ now-infamous hellacious holiday season, when stranded customers complained about being unable to get basic information.
“If your flight is very delayed or canceled, and the airline could have prevented that, you deserve more than just the price of your ticket, you deserve to be fully compensated,” Biden said at the White House on Monday afternoon. “Your time matters. The impact on your life matters.”
The proposal is the latest step Buttigieg and the Biden administration have taken to crack down on what many progressives see as an overly concentrated airline industry prone to consumer abuses.
“When an airline causes a flight cancellation or delay, passengers should not foot the bill,” Buttigieg said in a statement announcing the proposal. “This rule would, for the first time in U.S. 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.”
Progressives have previously argued Buttigieg has not done enough to battle the airlines, which boast a fearsome D.C. lobbying operation, even as the airlines’ trade group has begun to push back on Buttigieg’s criticisms.
One of Buttigieg’s most consistent progressive critics, William McGee of the American Economic Liberties Project, praised DOT for the proposal.
“For too long, U.S. airlines — especially the largest ones — have gotten away with treating passengers like cattle, overbooking flights, hiding fees, and allowing outrageous delays and cancellations for which they refuse to provide adequate compensation and accommodations,” said McGee, a former air traffic controller who is now a senior fellow at the antitrust-focused think thank. “This proposal is a big step in the right direction ahead of a busy summer travel season and we hope to see the agency enforce it rigorously to protect passengers as it works to balance the scales for consumers.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), long the airlines’ loudest critic in Congress, stressed the need for DOT to aggressively enforce the eventual rule.
“As airline flight becomes more unpredictable and stressful, passengers deserve not only money back but also peace of mind,” Blumenthal said. “Clear rules are welcome, but enforcement is key to real results.”
Airlines for America, the trade group representing the largest airlines, did not explicitly oppose the proposed rule in a statement.
“U.S. 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. We have the safest air travel system in the world because we never compromise on safety,” the group said, adding: “We look forward to working with the Administration to ensure U.S. airspace remains the safest airspace in the world while supporting robust marketplace competition that provides transparency and vast options for consumers.”
The White House noted regulations requiring compensation for delays already exist in Canada and the European Union, where airlines can have to pay up to 600 euros — equivalent to about $660 — to passengers.
“Guess what? It works,” Biden said, referring to a study showing a drop in flight delays after the EU’s rules went into effect.
A key part of developing the rule, which should be finalized later this year, is likely to be defining when a cancellation or delay is under the airlines’ control. Airlines for America noted the majority of cancellations in 2022 were due to extreme weather, and weather and air traffic control outages have been responsible for the majority of 2023 cancellations so far.
The administration is also adding information on whether an airline offers compensation for delayed or canceled flights to a dashboard at FlightRights.gov, which the administration has used to name and shame airlines into offering more consumer protections.
After Biden called for a new law barring airlines from charging parents and children extra to sit next to each other during his State of the Union address in February, three airlines adopted policies abandoning such charges.
Even if Congress does not pass such a law, the Department of Transportation is working to finalize a proposal to eliminate the fees. The DOT has also proposed rules requiring airlines to display fees for checked baggage or for changing or canceling your flight upfront and another rule requiring airlines to refund passengers if services they paid for, like Wi-Fi access, are not working.