Refund rules not clear to passengers; DOT issues proposal

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(NewsNation) — The airline industry is still rebounding after pandemic lockdowns. It’s been far from smooth; some would say downright turbulent.

In fact, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has set in motion stricter regulations that would govern when airlines give customers their money back. But as it stands, the wording isn’t totally clear.

Travelers are currently entitled to a refund if their flights are canceled, significantly changed or delayed. But what constitutes a significant delay or change still needs to be settled.

The DOT is attempting to clear that up by defining a “significant delay” as a departure or arrival time that’s off by three hours or more for domestic flights, and six hours or more for international flights.

This is the proposal to clarify refund regulations:

  • 3+ hours for domestic flights
  • 6+ hours for international flights
  • Added connections or routes
  • Downgrade in aircraft
  • Downgrade in amenities

Clint Henderson, managing editor of the news and travel website The Points Guy, joined NewsNation to answer questions about the U.S. DOT proposal and what it would do for travelers.

“It is a really good step; actually, it’s very proactive by the Department of Transportation,” Henderson said. “And they have a 90-day commentary period. But I have a feeling these rules will be imposed after that 90 days. So this is progress.”

Henderson explained that the DOT is trying to define how long you have to wait for a delay or cancelation in order to get a full refund, not just a voucher. He said the rules had been hazy before the pandemic and other economic impacts travelers currently face.

“So hopefully this will give some stability to passengers when they have significant delays. … This really lays down some ground rules for passengers,” Henderson said.

According to Henderson, the airlines are claiming they gave plenty of refunds during the pandemic. He thinks that the airlines won’t fight this proposal too much.

“It’s because, potentially, Congress could pass stricter laws than these rules. So, the airlines may go along with this just to avoid having something like a passenger Bill of Rights passed, or something that’s even stronger against the airlines,” he said.

A separate proposal by the government may include some downgrades such as seat size. There has been a lot of pushback on how small aircraft seats are and how uncomfortable it is to ride in extremely close proximity to other passengers.

“The government wants feedback from passengers on seating right now. But it’s not for comfort reasons,” Henderson explained. “It’s only for safety reasons. So there’s no obligation for the government to set minimum comfort guidelines.”

Henderson suggested they may end up setting minimum seat guidelines for safety reasons so that passengers can evacuate the plane in case of an emergency. But he said it is highly unlikely that the effort will bring about comfortable seats anytime soon.

“Someone shared that they don’t like body sharing in the seat. That happens sometimes. I don’t think this is going to lead to smaller seats,” Henderson said. “To be honest, I think this is something the FAA is interested in only from a safety perspective.”

However, Henderson said if there were a passenger Bill of Rights passed by Congress, it could tackle something like this.

“I would also say the airlines get a little wiggle room with some of these new rules. They can charge fees for refunding your tickets in the future. So that’s one area where the airlines really win,” he said.

Henderson said the fees should only be $2.50 to give you a refund, but it isn’t clear if the airlines will take this opportunity and run with it.

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