New rules would require airlines to meet “minimum” customer service standards

Editor’s note: This is part three in a series of posts about the Transportation Department’s sweeping new airline passenger protection rules. Please take a moment to comment on these proposed rules at Regulationroom.org. The future of air travel depends on it.

The heart of the government’s new rulemaking on air travel is a requirement that would set minimum customer service standards for air carriers. The government has never attempted anything this ambitious, and it is bound to be flooded with emails from airline employees and apologists demanding that it back down.

It’s up to airline passengers to say otherwise by commenting on this proposal.

Essentially, the third part of the DOT’s rulemaking does two things: First, it requires foreign airlines serving U.S. destinations to adopt customer service plans that address issues like offering the lowest fares available, notification of delays, delivering baggage on time, providing prompt ticket refunds and handling bumped passengers with consistency, among others. These rules are already in effect for domestic carriers.

But what’s likely to cause airlines the most pain — and their customer the most pleasure — is a proposed rule that would set minimum customer service standards. Until now, the existing rule has had an enormous loophole: It wasn’t specific enough (DOT’s words, not mine) for a consumer to have realistic expectations of the types of services a carrier will provide under its plan, or that some carriers may not be living up to their customer service commitments.

In other words, it’s not worth the paper on which it’s printed.

The new standards would compel airlines to do the following:

(1) offering the lowest fare available on the carrier’s website, at the ticket counter, or when a customer calls the carrier’s reservation center to inquire about a fare or to make a reservation

(2) notifying consumers in the boarding gate area, on board aircraft, and via a carrier’s telephone reservation system and its website of known delays, cancellations, and diversions

(3) delivering baggage on time, including making every reasonable effort to return mishandled baggage within twenty-four hours and compensating passengers for reasonable expenses that result due to delay in delivery

(4) allowing reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or cancelled without penalty, for at least twenty-four hours after the reservation is made

(5) where ticket refunds are due, providing prompt refunds for credit card purchases as required by 14 CFR 374.3 and 12 CFR Part 226, and for cash and check purchases within 20 days after receiving a complete refund request

(6) properly accommodating passengers with disabilities as required by 14 CFR Part 382 and for other special-needs passengers as set forth in the carrier’s policies and procedures, including during lengthy tarmac delays

(7) meeting customers’ essential needs during lengthy tarmac delays as required by 14 CFR 259.4 and as provided for in each covered carrier’s contingency plan

(8) handling “bumped” passengers with fairness and consistency in the case of oversales as required by 14 CFR Part 250 and as described in each carrier’s policies and procedures for determining boarding priority

(9) disclosing cancellation policies, frequent flyer rules, aircraft configuration, and lavatory availability on the selling carrier’s website, and upon request, from the selling carrier’s telephone reservations staff; (10) notifying consumers in a timely manner of changes in their travel itineraries

(11) ensuring good customer service from code-share partners operating a flight, including making reasonable efforts to ensure that its code-share partner(s) have comparable customer service plans or provide comparable customer service levels, or have adopted the identified carrier’s customer service plan; (12) ensuring responsiveness to customer complaints as required by 14 CFR 259.7

(13) identifying the services it provides to mitigate passenger inconveniences resulting from flight cancellations and misconnections

The government doesn’t want to leave it up to airlines to define the terms, either. For example,

With regard to delivering baggage on time, we solicit comment on whether we should also include as standards (1) that carriers reimburse passengers the fee charged to transport a bag if that bag is lost or not timely delivered, as well as (2) the time when a bag should be considered not to have been timely delivered (e.g., delivered on same or earlier flight than the passenger, delivered within 2 hours of the passenger’s arrival).

As I review this portion of the rulemaking I’m astonished that the airline industry needs to be told in such detail what the right thing to do is. It’s almost as if the kids have been misbehaving since that deregulation thing, and now daddy is laying down the law.

Unbelievable.

And unbelievably hard to show how much it would — or wouldn’t — cost, according to the preliminary regulatory analysis (PDF) .

The lack of specified minimum standards … makes it difficult for both passengers and the Department to evaluate the specific guarantees of service provision that are being made by carriers.

I see it differently. I don’t know how we can not afford to move forward with these new, long-overdue rules.

The Rulemaking Series

I’ve written this series of posts in order to help you understand the Transportation Department’s proposed rules and offer the most informed feedback during its commenting period. Please take a moment to read them and then tell the government what you think at Regulationroom.org.

Part 1: New tarmac delay contingency plans — what’s in it for you?

Part 2: Government will require airlines to offer “complete picture” of ground delays

Part 3: New rules would require airlines to meet “minimum” customer service standards

Part 4: Government to airlines: Put it in the contract!

Part 5: New requirements would force international airlines to monitor and respond to passenger complaints

Part 6: Everything you need to know about the new denied boarding compensation rules

Part 7: The truth about the government’s new “full fare” disclosure rule

Part 8: Transportation Department wants airlines to reveal all fees and an airfare — or two

Part 9: New rule: No more price increases after you buy a ticket

Part 10: Airlines must “promptly” notify passengers of flight delays under proposed rule

Part 11: No more lawsuit limits for passengers under proposed government rules

Part 12: The hard facts about the peanuts-on-a-plane rule everyone’s talking about

If you have any feedback on this series, please send me an email. And thanks for reading.

(Photo: Darrren Hester/Flickr Creative Commons)

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