What airline passengers should know about their rights to get refunds

New consumer protection rules will soon entitle airline passengers to automatic refunds when flights are canceled or significantly delayed, while also requiring airlines to reveal junk fees upfront.

In total, the new rules could save travelers $500 million annually, Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday, describing the regulations as “the biggest expansion of passenger rights in the department’s history.”

The new rules take aim at some of the most common complaints against airlines, such as delays and difficulties getting refunds. Airlines will also have to disclose all possible fees, such as added costs for seat selection, when advertising a fare.

The regulations are likely to effect in October, officials said. Here’s what to know about the new rules and what they mean for you.

You’ll get an automatic refund for delayed or canceled flights

The first rule mandates that airlines must promptly refund customers when flights are meaningfully disrupted or delayed. Airlines will have to refund not only the amount of ticket prices, but government-imposed taxes and fees as well as airline-imposed fees.

In theory, passengers are already entitled to such refunds, but in practice they don’t alway receive them, Buttigieg noted. He said the new rule benefits infrequent fliers in particular, who may be less familiar with their rights. 

This rule will save customers the hassle of dealing with a chatbot or completing a cumbersome claims process to receive refunds they’re entitled to anyway when flights don’t take off as scheduled.

Airlines often offer customers compensation in the form of vouchers or miles with values that are less than the flight’s original cost. And passengers often must engage with customer service agents or chatbots to secure refunds, which can lead them to give up on the process altogether, according to Buttigieg.

How long of a delay will qualify for a refund? 

The new rule defines what constitutes a “significantly changed” flight: a delay of at least three hours for a domestic flight, and at least six hours for an international flight. That was previously left to the discretion of the airline. 

The rule says passengers will get automatic refunds in those cases as long as they don’t accept alternative transportation or travel credits offered by the airline.  

Passengers will also be entitled to refunds for other significant flight changes, according to the Department of Transportation. 

These changes include flights whose departure or arrival airports change, that add connections or downgrade passengers to a different level of service. If a flight requires a passenger with a disability to make a connection at an airport or on a flight that is less accommodating, that also qualifies for a refund.

How long will it take to get a refund?

Airlines will have seven days to automatically refund passengers who purchased their tickets with a credit card, and 20 calendar days for other payment methods, the Transportation Department said.

“No more defaulting to vouchers or credits when consumers may not even realize they’re entitled to cash,” Buttigieg said. 

Can I get a refund for delayed bags? 

Yes, checked bag delays are also covered by the new rule. 

When bags aren’t delivered within 12 hours of a domestic flight’s arrival at its gate, passengers will get a refund for their checked bag fee. On international flights, bags that don’t arrive within 15 to 30 hours, depending on a flight’s length, are covered by the rule. 

What other refunds will be available? 

The first rule also requires airlines to refund services that customers paid for but then didn’t receive on the flight, such as wifi, seat selection or in-flight entertainment, the Transportation Department said.

For instance, if passengers buy wifi access but it doesn’t work property, they are entitled to a refund for the service.

What is happening with surprise fees? 

Transportation officials also announced a second rule on Wednesday that targets “junk” or surprise fees, which are charges that aren’t typically disclosed to a consumer ahead of purchase. 

Under the rule, airlines must disclose all fees the first time that airfare is advertised on an airline’s site. Hyperlinks don’t count, according to the agency.

The rule is designed to protect consumers against confusion caused by “drip pricing” by requiring airlines to disclose how much these additional fees will cost up front. That includes amounts airlines charge consumers to check bags, carry on bags, select seats, and change or cancel flights.

The rule is designed to help make it easier for passengers to estimate the full cost of flying so they can make an informed purchase.

Are seats guaranteed if I buy a ticket?

Under the second rule, airlines will also have to make clear to customers that if they buy a ticket, they’re guaranteed a seat — even if they don’t fork over additional money to choose where on the plane that seat is located. 

How will I know I’m seeing the actual flight price?

Under the second rule, airlines are barred from advertising artificially low prices that don’t factor in mandatory fees. 

The Transportation Department said this will end “discount bait-and-switch tactics” that dangle deceptive discounts to convince travelers to buy tickets.

What do airlines say about the new rules?

Airlines for America, a trade group for large U.S. carriers, noted that refund complaints to the Transportation Department have fallen sharply since mid-2020. 

A spokesperson for the group said airlines “offer a range of options — including fully refundable fares — to increase accessibility to air travel and to help customers make ticket selections that best fit their needs.”

The group said the 11 largest U.S. airlines issued $43 billion in customer refunds from 2020 through 2023.

While Buttigieg said airlines aren’t “enthusiastic” about being held to a higher standard, he believes the new rules will build passenger confidence in companies and ultimately benefit the industry as a whole.

Buttigieg also said he hopes the new rules will push carriers to improve the consumer experience. For example, if an airline knows it will automatically owe customers refunds for canceled flights, it might invest more in precise scheduling, and ultimately reduce the number of cancellations overall. 

—With reporting by the Associated Press.

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