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DOT Enacts Sweeping New Air-Passenger Protections

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It has been 12 years since the air-passenger rights movement first got off the ground, but now it's positively soaring, thanks to a new set of consumer protections announced today by the Department of Transportation. Among other things, provisions in the new rule would close a loophole that exempted international flights from the tarmac delay limits enacted last year; require airlines to prominently list all fees a passenger might face on a flight; increase maximum compensation paid to involuntarily bumped passengers from a range of $400-$800 to $650-$1,300; allow passengers to cancel or change a reservation within 24 hours with no penalty (if the reservation is made at least a week before departure); and force airlines to refund baggage fees when they lose a customer's luggage. Most of the provisions will go into effect 120 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Talk of a Passenger Bill of Rights began in earnest following a 1999 incident in which a planeload of passengers on a Northwest Airlines flight was held on the tarmac for eight hours without food, water, or working toilets. Similar incidents in 2006 and 2007 stranded thousands of air travelers, reviving the outcry for passenger protections. A so-called Passenger Bill of Rights is part of the FAA Reauthorization Act, which has been bouncing around Congress since 2007, but there is no guarantee that it will find its way into the final bill when it is sent to the White House.

One good thing about the weaker consumer safeguards being considered by Congress: Any passenger protections enacted as part of the FAA Reauthorization Act will have the permanency of law. The new DOT rule, although more sweeping than the proposed Congressional legislation, could more readily be overturned by a subsequent administration. But for the moment, the new rule should be welcome news to the flying public.

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Smart Traveler Mark Orwoll is the International Editor of Travel + Leisure.

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