A sweeping series of new rules is enhancing airline passenger rights. T+L explains how they’ll improve air travel for everyone.
Credit: Juliette Borda

In the years before airline deregulation, the federal government approved routes and even airfares. But since 1978, airlines have had much more freedom to run their businesses as they see fit—even to the point of hiding the true cost of fares, stranding passengers on the tarmac for hours, and ignoring customer complaints. But that will change under new Department of Transportation (DOT) rules that begin taking effect on August 23. Here are some of the most important new regulations.


The three-hour tarmac-delay limit enacted in April 2010 was welcome news, but it applied only to domestic flights at medium and large hub airports. The DOT is now adding small and non-hub airports to the list. International flights, previously exempt, will have a four-hour limit. The rule also requires that passengers get updated information at least every 30 minutes.
Why You Should Care:
Virtually every commercial flight at almost every U.S. airport will now be covered.


DOT is asking foreign carriers to adopt a customer service plan with the following provisions, among others: carriers must issue airfare refunds within 20 days, make every effort to deliver lost luggage within 24 hours, and allow customers 24 hours to cancel a reservation without penalty for departures more than a week in advance (a provision added to U.S. service plans as well).
Why You Should Care:
You’re now ensured consistent service expectations on both domestic and international flights.


Complaining to a foreign airline has long been an exercise in futility. Foreign carriers will now be held to the same standards as U.S. airlines.
Why You Should Care:
Practically all commercial airlines serving the U.S. market now have to acknowledge written complaints within 30 days and offer you a “substantive response” within 60 days.


The DOT is increasing airlines’ compensation to passengers who are bumped involuntarily—up from $800 to $1,300 for delays of more than two hours on flights originating in the U.S.
Why You Should Care:
Airlines have less incentive to bump. Plus: people traveling on frequent-flier miles, travel vouchers, or consolidator tickets also qualify now.

Bait-and-Switch fares

A new rule taking effect in October will require all displayed airfares to include taxes, fees, and other mandatory charges in a ticket’s price. Moreover, all fees for optional services (checked luggage, meals) must be disclosed clearly on an airline’s website.
Why You Should Care:
Your comparisons will be more realistic when shopping for the best airfare.

The DOT’s new regulations are far from perfect (see below) and could be overturned down the line, but for now they mark a high point in air-traveler protections.

What the New DOT Rules Do Not Do

  • Offer compensation for bumping because of aircraft changes or from any plane with fewer than 30 seats.
  • Require airlines to off-load baggage for people who opt to deplane because of a tarmac delay.
  • Mandate baggage-fee refunds for delayed (and not just lost) luggage.
  • Make airlines show customers where to find the lowest fare.