Flight delays: Airlines and Biden’s new rules
| November 16, 2023
President Joe Biden has made remarks on protecting consumers facing flight delays and cancellations. With the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic behind the airline industry, this isn't the first time disruptions have reared their head. However, Biden's dispatch seeks to compensate passengers for issues that are within the airline's control, putting the onus on the industry to shape up ahead of a busy travel season.
Airlines have rebooted as lockdowns have subsided, vaccine passport mandates were dropped, and people felt more comfortable flying once again. As the industry was forced to make up for lost time via rehiring staff, adding flights to their schedules, and meeting an ever-growing demand, the "return to normal" had arrived. Or had it? Some markets are still playing catch-up.
Cruel season ahead?
In April, Axios reported that industry executives were already warning of the summer challenges ahead. This time around, concerns about air traffic control staffing levels are at play – remnants of the rapid reopening/rehiring/retraining required for such roles. One key New York-area facility is only bolstered by about half of its target staffing levels. Nationwide, this number sits around 80%. Because New York is a major hub, any issues here run the risk of reverberating across the United States.
Additionally, airlines have taken to using larger planes, running fewer flights in the airspace. With less flights transporting travelers, smaller hubs risk getting left behind, as the demand shifts entirely towards the major airlines. Throw in hazardous weather delays, cancellations, and tech outages such as the FAA's that grounded passengers nationwide in January, passengers suddenly have a lot more to worry about than getting to their gate on time.
The runway towards compensation
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the airline industry had been in a finger-pointing scenario for months prior to Biden's announcement. Biden thanked American citizens for keeping the industry afloat in 2020 via $50 billion in taxes, and says now is the time "to get American air travelers a better deal."
Buttigieg, in a statement, said that for the first time in history, this new rule proposes to require airlines to compensate passengers and cover expenses such as meals, hotels, and rebooking fees. The end goal is to provide timely customer service for passengers, and to avoid having them foot the bill if facing a delay or cancellation.
To further support this initiative, the U.S. Department of Transportation has set up a website – FlightRights.gov – which aims to demonstrate how each airline offers compensation, amenities, and vouchers during flight disruptions that are within the airline's control. The DOT encourages airlines to strengthen their commitments to customers, and will update the site with any new policies that are created, moving forward.
How soon is now?
While these new regulations paint a rosy picture of summer travel, there may still be a bumpy road ahead. The realities of hiring and training new staff, creating infrastructure for compensation, and implementing a plan takes time.
Consumer groups applauded the actions, but lawmakers and academics shared other perspectives. The Washington Post cited Christian McMullen, a spokesman for committee Republicans, in saying that this will re-regulate every facet of passenger travel, and increase costs for travelers.
Robert Mann, of R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consulting firm, says that travelers might be misled into thinking that they would be eligible for compensation this summer, rather than months and years from now.
What lies ahead
How will the next few months play out for the airline industry? The implementation of these customer service measures will tell. It's possible that staffing levels will eventually catch up to pre-COVID levels, but airlines are unable to control every aspect of travel, especially in regards to hazardous weather. That may be the next frontier for the DOT and Biden administration.
Flight delays and the future of travel
The "future of travel" is often written about, and this time, it's regarding an area of focus that should have existed long before a global pandemic took hold. The impacts felt by the airline industry over the last three years have been largely publicized – cancellations, layoffs, reduced flight schedules and a massive loss in revenues. As both the airline and hospitality industries attempt to rebuild during a time of increased demand for travel, a renewed focus on customer service and compensation represents an opportunity for a more seamless airline experience, even if there are several steps to be taken.
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