Air passengers could see sweeping reforms and easier refunds. Consumer advocates and lawmakers say it’s still not enough.

But the United States could soon join the ranks of other countries with a rule proposal that would clearly regulate the circumstances in which passengers are entitled to compensation from airlines.

After decades of enforcing laissez-faire, the Department for Transport is proposing changes to clarify the vague language airlines use to identify “significant delays” and potentially help passengers get refunds or vouchers more efficiently. A passenger has to experience a “significant delay” to be eligible for a refund, but for years the definition has been in the eye of the beholder or an airline representative.

Under the new DOT mandate, the ambiguities have disappeared. A significant delay occurs when a domestic departure or arrival is affected by delays or changes of three hours or more, and six hours or more for international flights. The new definition would also include changes in the airport of departure or arrival, increases in the number of connections or changes in the type of aircraft flown.

“When Americans buy an airline ticket, they should get to their destination safely, reliably and affordably,” US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in a statement last month. “This new proposed rule would protect travelers’ rights and help ensure they receive the timely refunds they deserve from airlines.”

Buttigieg said the changes were prompted by the spate of issues travelers faced in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent bumpy resurgence in air travel last year. The proposal would also require airlines and ticket offices to provide passengers with flight credits or vouchers valid indefinitely if they are unable to fly for pandemic-related reasons such as border closures or health warnings.

The DOT has received more than 4,000 public comments so far, with travelers overwhelmingly supporting the changes; Some said they would like more consumer protection. Some used the forum to share their personal horror stories.

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It’s unclear how long travelers will have to wait for these consumer-friendly changes to take effect. The deadline for public comments is November 21st. A DOT spokeswoman said that after analyzing all of the comments, the department will decide whether to proceed with the proposed rule, issue a new or amended proposal, or withdraw the proposal. Airlines will also have an opportunity to get involved. Those familiar with similar proposals estimate it will likely take at least two years for changes to take place.

Late or denied refunds and flight credits are one of the top complaints at the DOT: In the first six months of 2022, the department received 28,550 complaints, more than all of 2019.

The timeline for the proposal — and the scope of the mandate itself — does not sit well with William McGee, a vocal passenger rights advocate at the American Economic Liberties Project. He said the DOT and Buttigieg would have to go much further to hold airlines accountable for previous unissued refunds, canceled flights and the delays that blocked service this summer.

A man sleeps on the terminal floor of Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport December 18, 2017 in Atlanta. Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has warned airlines that if airlines stop helping travelers trapped by flight cancellations and delays, his department could draft new rules on passenger rights. John Amis/Associated Press

“The bottom line is this year’s DOT has been a tremendous disappointment to all American travelers,” McGee said, claiming Buttigieg failed to use his existing authority to penalize airlines. “What we have seen from airlines this summer is both unfair and misleading. We have an industry that has been planning flights for months without being able to complete them all; we called them phantom flights.”

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But McGee acknowledged that Buttigeig has done more on the subject than his predecessors.

Airline trade organization Airlines for America, which represents airlines including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue, has maintained throughout the pandemic that it has complied with all federal laws and regulations when issuing refunds for flight cancellations.

“We’ve made significant adjustments to travel policies during the pandemic to offer consumers more flexibility,” Rebecca Spicer, a spokeswoman for the organization, wrote in a recent comment. “[Airlines for America] Passenger airlines have eliminated all domestic flight change fees, and many have adjusted travel credit expiration dates. Additionally, airlines have been working with the Department of Transportation to clarify existing practices and increase transparency for travelers.”

But McGee and several lawmakers say it’s time airlines were held accountable for refunds and issues addressed, especially after the industry collectively received $50 billion in US pandemic funds, with an understanding that the money used to retain staff and prepare airlines when travel returns to normal.

There are several other initiatives to make air travel more consumer-friendly. Last month, a coalition of 25 attorney generals, including Massachusetts’ Maura Healey, called on congressional leaders to legislate on it Allow states to crack down on airlines. The industry has been regulated exclusively by the federal government since airline deregulation in 1978.

“While the US DOT enhances current agency protections, we remain deeply concerned and frustrated that the agency is unable or unwilling to defend consumer rights and hold airlines accountable for irresponsible actions,” it said in the letter. “It’s time to empower attorneys general and perhaps another federal agency to enforce consumer protections for air travelers.”

A source in Healey’s office said it had received nearly 900 complaints about airlines since 2017 but was unable to follow up on them due to current law.

Meanwhile, the American Economic Liberties Project has drafted model legislation that goes a step further by giving state courts and lawmakers the power to oversee consumer protections. It seeks to scrap the 40-year-old rule that dictates that the DOT is the sole regulator of airlines. A formal announcement of the proposed legislation will be made this week.

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Additionally, several members of the House of Representatives and senators, including Massachusetts’ Ed Markey, last month introduced the Cash Refunds for Flight Cancellations Act, which would legislate the DOT rule that major airlines would offer consumers a cash refund for cancellations or significant delays . It would also give consumers a new right to a cash refund if passengers cancel their ticket up to 48 hours before the flight’s scheduled departure.

Similar consumer legislation for airlines has withered in Congress. But the summer of 2022 could be a catalyst for consensus within a very divided House and Senate.

“I think partisan politics plays a little bit less of a role in aviation matters,” McGee said. “I’ve seen more bipartisan anger erupting from Congress in the last few weeks than ever before. Tens of thousands of flights have been canceled this summer, and some of them have affected members of Congress. It’s not abstract.”

While Buttigieg’s consumer protection proposal sounds similar to the European Union’s flight compensation regulation, it doesn’t offer as many protections and options, and leaves room for additional legislation. Bottom Line: Consumer advocates say that buying an airline ticket should be no different than buying any other service: if you don’t get what you paid for, you get your money back.

In Warsaw, AirHelp’s Pawliszyn spent hours on the phone haggling with US airlines to get refunds or at least vouchers for passengers. He’s waiting to see if the current movement is more than stormy talk prompted by a difficult summer.

“We’re big supporters of that here,” Pawliszyn said of the US proposal. “Anything would be an improvement over what is in place now. But I think travelers deserve more than a little improvement. Why not make the process easier for everyone?”

Christopher Muther can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Chris_mother and Instagram @chris_muther.

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