Archive for September, 2012

Tarmac delays and cheap air tickets

In 2010, there were some high-profile incidents with passengers forced to sit in airplanes on the tarmac without food and water for up to ten hours. In one incident at Rochester, MN, an airplane landed at 1230 am and the airport staff refused to open the terminal to allow the passengers off the plane. To put it mildly, this was a stunning failure to provide even basic levels of humanitarian care. New rules were brought in that require airlines to allow passengers to disembark the plane if it has been stuck on the ground for three hours and the airlines and airport operator were fined $175,000 by the Transport Department as a result of the six-hour delay.

As a result of this rule change, airlines responded positively with the number of runways delays reduced to a tiny fraction of flights, but with a slight increase in the number of cancellations. The Transport Department is not clear whether the increase in cancellation is due to the new rules. All that can be said with any confidence is that airlines are returning planes to the gates if there are delays. This is a trade-off. Passengers who stay on the plane are entitled to food and drinks, must be allowed to use toilets and, if necessary, given access to medical treatment. Assuming no safety issues, passengers must also be allowed off the plane after three hours even if on cheap air tickets. If the airlines default, the fines are up to $27,500 per passenger. Obviously this is a substantial penalty and the airlines have been anxious to avoid paying. Even so, some delays have been unavoidable. For example, a severe thunderstorm can hold flights on the ground as priority is given to getting incoming flights on the ground. These flights take the gates and leave the waiting planes on the tarmac.

In part, there’s also a problem with a shortage of gates at some airports and a lack of people in the control tower. The issue is always whether returning an airplane to a gate will disrupt the operation of the airport. Since the fine falls disproportionately on the airlines, there’s possible unfairness but, so far, passengers holding both full-price and cheap air tickets are winning.

Looking at passenger protections on airlines and cheap air tickets

A series of new regulations designed to offer airline passengers a greater level of protection were introduced by the US Department of Transport back in 2011. The intention is to improve the level of service actually delivered at airports and to achieve a better level of transparency on fares before you book. This is a brief summary of the new protections:

1. Lost baggage

The airline is required to refund the carriage charge fee, and must hold that reduced fee on any continuing or return flights should a bag be lost. Compensation is also to be paid. Although this is not intended as a substitute for you carrying travel insurance, basic losses should be covered immediately when loss or damage is obvious. Compensation remains payable even if the bag is not lost but merely delayed.

2. Bumping

Despite the best efforts of regulators around the world, airlines continue to overbook, particularly when cheap air tickets are held. The new rules double the amount of compensation payable if you are denied a flight. If you cannot be delivered to your intended destination within two hours of the scheduled time, you’re entitled to compensation of double the face value of the ticket up to a maximum $650 per ticket. But if the delay is longer, you’re entitled to four times the face value of the ticket up to a maximum of $1,300 per ticket. These compensation amounts will be adjusted to stay in line with inflation every two years.

3. Transparency

All airlines must list all the applicable charges on their websites for handling bags, providing meals, and so on. All government fees and taxes must be included in the ticket prices collected. Unless the government fees and taxes rise, the prices cannot be increased after you pay.

4. Reservations

If you make a reservation for full-price or cheap air tickets, the quoted prices must be held for at least 24 hours. If you decide to cancel, the airline is not allowed to impose a penalty.

There was no variation of the tarmac delay rules. Secretary LaHood has been satisfied by the improvement in airline’s performance although the new rules do require more disclosure on delays and cancellations to improve monitoring of the airlines.