Your Rights as a Flier Are About to Get Much Better—if You Take Action

Concerned about the way airlines treat passengers? Now is the time to let your voice be heard.

airport passengers fliers

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s proposed new rules will give air travelers a lot more leverage.

Photo by Shutterstock

Last month, the U.S. Transportation Department proposed new rules for airlines that could notably enhance the rights of fliers, and the public has 90 days—or until November 21—to weigh in on the proposal to help bring about the changes.

The proposal has four key objectives:

1) It would require airlines to provide refunds if the departure or arrival time changes by three or more hours for a domestic flight, or six or more hours for an international flight.

2) It would require airlines to provide refunds when the airline changes the passenger’s departure or arrival airport or adds stops to an itinerary.

3) It would require airlines to provide refunds when the airlines cause “a significant downgrade” in the travel experience by switching to a different type of plane.

4) It would require airlines to provide future travel credits that don’t expire when passengers can’t travel for health and safety reasons during a pandemic or because borders are closed.

The rules would also apply to tickets that are typically nonrefundable, such as lower-priced basic economy fares.

If enacted, the new regulations “would be the largest boost to traveler protections in years,” said Scott Keyes, founder of flight deal tracking service Scott’s Cheap Flights.

“The proposed rule is currently in its required 90-day public comment period, after which the DOT will weigh feedback and finalize what final regulation to put forth,” Keyes wrote in a letter to readers. “I guarantee airlines and their lobbyists will be registering their feedback in the hopes of watering down or even defeating this proposal. I’ve left a comment, and I’d encourage you to as well.”

Public comments can be made through this online form.

What the biggest changes will be for air travelers

While airlines are not required to compensate passengers when the passenger initiates the cancellation or flight change for personal reasons, a refund is required by U.S. law when the airline cancels, delays, or significantly alters a flight and the traveler chooses not to fly.

Airlines make it very easy for passengers to obtain a future flight credit when they need to change or cancel a flight, but obtaining a proper money-back refund has been less straightforward.

One of the challenges passengers face in making sure they are compensated has been how a significant change in itinerary is defined. According to the DOT, “a consumer is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the consumer chooses not to travel.”

Under the new rules, there would be set parameters regarding what defines a significant delay—three or more hours for a domestic flight, or six or more hours for an international flight.

The proposed new regulations were unveiled on August 3 and were followed up by some stern warnings to the airlines from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg amid a year when air travel has been marred by mass cancellations, delays, long lines at airports, and mountains of lost luggage.

“As we approach an increase in air travel for the Labor Day holiday, I want to reiterate what you have heard me say often: Americans expect when they purchase an airline ticket they will arrive at their destination safely, reliably, and affordably,” Buttigieg wrote in a letter that was sent to the heads of all the major U.S. airlines, dated August 18.

Buttigieg said that while the government appreciates the efforts that have been made by the airlines since Memorial Day to reduce delays and cancellations, “the level of disruption Americans have experienced this summer is unacceptable.”

In the first half of 2022, roughly 24 percent of U.S. domestic flights were delayed, and 3.2 percent were canceled, according to the transportation secretary.

A new dashboard to calculate what you’re owed

To ensure travelers have “clear and transparent information” regarding what they are owed when delays and cancellations occur, the DOT on September 1—just in time for Labor Day weekend—launched an interactive dashboard on its Aviation Consumer Protection website that allows travelers to see the precise guarantees, refunds, and compensation the major domestic U.S. airlines offer in case of flight delays or cancellations.

The new dashboard and proposed new rules come as the DOT has been flooded with complaints from passengers. In its latest Air Travel Consumer Report, released on August 26, the DOT reported that there was a 34.9 percent increase in air travel service complaints from May to June, and that complaints are nearly 270 percent above prepandemic levels.

“DOT remains committed to ensuring airline passengers are treated fairly and is concerned about recent flight cancellations and flight disruptions,” the agency stated in last week’s report. The DOT noted that its Office of Aviation Consumer Protection “is monitoring airlines’ operations to ensure that airlines are not engaging in unrealistic scheduling.”

As travel rapidly rebounded this year following two years of a pandemic-spurred downturn, airlines sold flights they did not necessarily have the pilots, staff, and ground crew to adequately operate and have had to trim their schedules in response. The hope is that inventory for this fall and beyond begins to more accurately reflect flight capacity capabilities.

According to Buttigieg, this might just be the beginning of a longer journey to improved passengers rights.

In his letter to the airlines, the transportation secretary asked that “at a minimum, [airlines should] provide meal vouchers for delays of three hours or more and lodging accommodations for passengers who must wait overnight at an airport because of disruptions within the carrier’s control.” Imagine.

“We are also contemplating options for rulemaking that would further expand the rights of airline passengers who experience disruptions,” Buttigieg said. Oh? Do tell.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

Michelle Baran is the senior travel news editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, pandemic coverage, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.