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US may require airlines to compensate passengers for canceled flights

New legislation would hold airlines responsible for amenities like meals, hotels and rebooking when they are to blame for stranding passengers.

US may require airlines to compensate passengers for canceled flights
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The Department of Transportation is working on legislation to require airlines to compensate passengers and cover expenses related to controllable delays and cancellations.

The rule would hold airlines responsible for amenities like meals, hotels, transportation and rebooking — in addition to compensation — when they are to blame for stranding passengers.

"When an airline causes a flight cancellation or delay, passengers should not foot the bill," U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a press release. "This rule would, for the first time in U.S. history, propose to require airlines to compensate passengers and cover expenses."

The DOT’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard at flightrights.gov was expanded Monday to highlight airlines currently offering vouchers, cash compensation and frequent flyer miles in the event of delays or cancellations.

No airlines currently offer cash compensation and only one — Alaska Airlines — automatically offers miles to travelers who have their plans significantly disrupted. 

Turbulent times: Airline complaints skyrocket, despite fewer travelers
Turbulent times: Airline complaints skyrocket, despite fewer travelers

Turbulent times: Airline complaints skyrocket, despite fewer travelers

Total airline complaints increased from about 15,000 in 2019 to more than 60,000 in 2022.

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Delta Airlines tells Scripps News that requiring certain payouts for delayed or canceled flights would limit their ability to tailor their response to customers' needs. They claim it would cause confusion with their customers, though they didn’t explain how. 

Frontier Airlines — the ultra low-cost carrier — offers the fewest of the accommodations the Biden administration wants to require. 

The airline did not immediately respond to our inquiry about how the requirement would impact its bottom line. 

Buttigieg has been pressing airlines to offer better customer service. 

After a two-year push, the 10 largest airlines now guarantee meals and free rebooking on the same airline, and nine offer hotel accommodations in the event of an airline-caused delay or cancellation.

After a DOT push for airlines to commit to fee-free family seating earlier this year, three airlines now guarantee a parent or caregiver can sit next to a child 13 or under without paying extra. 

The Department of Transportation says it also wants to require airlines to provide travel vouchers — without an expiration date — to passengers who can’t travel because they’re sick with COVID-19 or another communicable illness. It’s unclear how they would verify someone’s illness, or how broadly they would apply that requirement. 

The DOT said last year it issued the largest fines in the history of the Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection, which brought millions of dollars back to hundreds of thousands of people. Since 2021, customers have seen $1 billion in refunds with help from the DOT.