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Airlines protest rules designed to protect passengers

PHILADELPHIA -- Sweeping pro-consumer passenger rights rules go into effect August 23 that require airlines to refund baggage fees for lost checked luggage and to pay more for involuntarily bumping passengers on over-booked flights.

PHILADELPHIA -- Sweeping pro-consumer passenger rights rules go into effect August 23 that require airlines to refund baggage fees for lost checked luggage and to pay more for involuntarily bumping passengers on over-booked flights.

The rules, designed to protect airline consumers from unfair and deceptive practices, extend fines to foreign carriers and to international flying by U.S. airlines, if passengers are stuck on airport tarmacs for more than four hours.

The new requirements have been praised by passenger rights advocates, but criticized by the airline industry for adding costs and challenges that could lead to higher ticket prices and more cancellations.

Spirit Airlines Inc. and Allegiant Air, joined by Southwest Airlines Co., are challenging one or more of the provisions, including a requirement that advertised fares include all government taxes and fees.

Airlines previously could list taxes and some passenger fees separately from an advertised fare, as long as they were prominently footnoted or linked.

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The U.S Transportation Department filed a rebuttal with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington on Aug. 4, defending the full-fare advertising rule to help the public ascertain the true cost of air travel.

"The new rules have gone further than any such protections in the history of U.S. commercial aviation," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa.

Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org, said the comprehensive provisions cover reporting of flight delays, increased bumping compensation, international flights in the tarmac delay rule, and fee refunds for lost bags, among other protections.

Airlines were successful in delaying until Jan. 24 implementation of some measures, such as prompt notification of flight delays and cancellations; allowing passengers to cancel a reservation, without penalty, within 24 hours, and publishing full fares in advertising.

Starting Aug. 23, airlines must disclose on their websites all optional or "ancillary" charges. This will be a "link" to a page listing all the fees, Hanni said. "It's not exactly what we had hoped for. It's not going to give you the ability to compare apples to apples amongst other carriers. We are still fighting for that."

The Transportation Department is contemplating an additional rule that would force airlines to provide their "ancillary" fee information to travel agents and online ticket distribution systems, such as Expedia and Travelocity, so that consumers can compare the fee-inclusive fares of various airlines.

Now, travel agencies and corporate travel managers cannot "transact the extra fees on a given flight because they don't have them," Mitchell said.

"You just don't know who is really higher because you don't have all this on a side-by-side basis. There are a zillion fees," he said.

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The rules came about after well-publicized incidents of travelers stranded indefinitely aboard aircraft, and the proliferation of surcharges and fees since 2008 for checked bags, reservation changes, seat upgrades, pillows and meals.

The International Air Transport Association, a trade group for 230 airlines worldwide, called the provisions "troublesome" and "a significant intrusion into the commercial marketplace. We are happy that they postponed some aspects of it for six months," said spokesman Perry Flint.

One new measure imposes fines on foreign airlines that keep passengers on tarmacs at U.S. airports for more than four hours. Last year the DOT imposed a three-hour tarmac delay rule on domestic carriers, a move the industry said has resulted in more flight cancellations to avoid the threat of fines up to $27,500 per passenger.

The tarmac rule dramatically cut tarmac delays in the first 12 months, from 693 to 20 in the full year after the rule took effect in April 2010.

But tarmac delays are creeping up again: 14 planes were stuck on the ground for more than three hours in June, and there were 16 such delays in May.

"I believe the reason is that the DOT has not imposed one single fine," said Hanni of FlyersRights. "If they don't, there's no teeth in the rule, and it's useless."

The DOT said most tarmac delays in the first year were not violations because they involved "exceptions" to the rule: safety or security.

In a few cases, warning letters were sent to carriers, said spokesman Bill Mosley. The tarmac delays in May and June are "under investigation," he said.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Related Topics: AVIATION
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