U.S. airlines big and small have canceled thousands of flights in the last week alone. From Southwest and American last fall to Spirit in the summer and even Delta last Easter, almost every major airline has had an operational meltdown in the last nine months.
The writing is on the wall: As airlines struggle to recover from the pandemic, these mass cancellations are going to keep happening. And aside from a public relations hit and some refunded ticket sales, airlines don’t pay the price for repeatedly failing customers. Everyday Americans do.
In U.S. law, travelers have shockingly few rights or protections when buying plane tickets. There’s no legal requirement for airlines to compensate travelers for these massive disruptions – or even to feed customers or put them up in a hotel when they get stranded overnight. Travelers are entitled to be placed on the next available flight (be it hours or days away) or request a refund and try to rebook their trip. That’s really the only power we’ve got.
Even after giving airlines tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to survive the pandemic, the federal government has left it up to the airlines to decide how to do right by consumers. Until there are real penalties for their recent failures, airlines will continue overpromising and underdelivering. That’s what they’ve been doing for months – it’s part of the reason these cancellations keep piling up.
Enough is enough.
Today, we at Thrifty Traveler are calling on officials in Congress and the Biden administration to give travelers more power by requiring airlines to compensate passengers when they significantly delay or cancel flights for reasons other than weather. Similar requirements have been in place throughout Europe for nearly two decades and were recently introduced in Canada.
“Every time an airline cancels hundreds of flights in a day, thousands of Americans are left stranded or scrambling to salvage their travel plans with little guidance or assistance from the airline itself. That’s unacceptable,” Thrifty Traveler CEO and Founder Jared Kamrowski said. “Requiring airlines to compensate customers when they delay or cancel flights would give travelers more control and power. But most importantly, it would help keep airlines accountable, limiting the mass disruptions we’ve seen over the last week.”
To be fair, running an airline is a hard business even in the best conditions. Getting hundreds of planes on and off the ground on-time is incredibly complex, where a small storm, software outage, or mechanics’ strike can result in days of scheduling issues.
And there’s no question the pandemic has made that harder. After downsizing through early retirements and exit packages, travel is on the upswing again – and airlines can’t grow fast enough. But they’ve stretched themselves too thin, packing schedules and passengers as tight as possible to make up for a year of lost revenue … without leaving themselves enough wiggle room to recover when things go wrong.
That’s the common thread in almost every mass airline cancellation in the last year. It’s especially painful recently, as cancellations have affected almost every airline in the country at a time when many are flying to join family and friends – perhaps for the first time in more than a year.
When things fall apart, what little comforts passengers can find from their airlines are in a “contract of carriage,” 50-plus page documents that vary from airline to airline. And the airlines themselves write these contracts, using words like “may” instead of “must” when it comes to offering hotel nights or placing affected customers on another airline to get them to their destination.
Consumer Reports Advocacy has been fighting for greater consumer rights and protections in air travel for decades. The recent slew of flight cancellations and frustrations with airlines have the organization hopeful that things could finally change.
“I think that if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen soon. I think that we’ve reached a tipping point,” said William McGee, aviation adviser for Consumer Reports Advocacy. “I’d be lying if I said it’s not an uphill battle, but we’re hopeful.”
The U.S. won’t have to look far for how they could structure such a change…
A Model to Do Right By Consumers
It’ll come as a surprise to many Americans, but for European travelers, getting money from the airline after a delay or cancellation is old hat. It’s been a part of their travel lives for nearly two decades.
Commonly referred to simply as “EU261,” this regulation passed by the European Commission in 2004 offers a broad set of passenger protections when things go wrong in the skies – far, far more than what’s available here in the U.S. And that includes guaranteed compensation when the airline delays or cancels your flight, plus other rights like meals, hotel stays for overnight delays, and more.
Just how much you can get depends on the length of your flight – and the length of the delay or cancellation. Payouts range from 125 euro (about $142 USD) for a delay of less than two hours on a flight under 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) to as much as 600 euro ($681 USD) on a delay of four-plus hours or cancellation of a flight of 3,500 kilometers (2,174 miles) or longer.
That’s enshrined in the law. No matter what else the airline does to help, they owe passengers that money. It also applies to foreign airlines departing from or flying within the European Union.
As expected, major European airlines fought against the measure as it was being proposed.
“The airlines at the time over there were screaming at the time that it was going to bankrupt them. Well, it didn’t,” McGee said. “They’re operating more efficiently.”
McGee has a point. Despite being hit even harder by the Omicron variant, major European carriers have canceled just a few dozen flights this week compared to the thousands of cancellations in the U.S. While European airlines are much smaller than here in the U.S., those numbers are still telling.
This has been going on for days, weeks, and months now in the U.S., over and over again. The disruptions have touched practically every domestic carrier. This is bigger than Omicron and the pandemic.
And Europe isn’t alone, either. Canada implemented its own “Air Passenger Protection Regulations” in 2019 that also guarantee compensation in the event of lengthy delays. Those payouts range from $400 CAD ($313 USD) for delays of three to six hours to $1000 CAD ($783 USD) for delays of nine or more hours – though smaller airlines can pay less.
Where Things Stand in the US
There have been several efforts over the years to do what Europe and Canada have done for consumers. They just haven’t gotten anywhere.
Members of Congress have introduced bills that would create a broad set of passenger protections, including limiting add-on fees, ensuring prompt refunds, and guaranteeing compensation for disruptions. And just this month, the U.S. Senate hauled airline CEOs into Congress to explain why they’ve canceled so many flights after bailouts that were designed to keep the airlines running at full strength through the pandemic. There were few satisfactory answers – and even fewer immediate solutions offered.
The Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, spearheaded by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, would go even farther than the laws in Europe and Canada. It would require airlines to refund the full cost of a ticket plus give passengers $1,350 when delaying flights. After failing to gain traction in previous years, Blumenthal and several Democratic colleagues reintroduced the bill this year.
“Almost everyone who has flown is familiar with how much of a hassle air travel can be, and COVID-19 has only amplified many of the challenges,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said in a statement about the bill last month. “It’s time for a new ‘Airline Passengers’’Bill of Rights and to stand up for the rights of all air passengers by ensuring ironclad consumer protections for air travel.”
But at Consumer Reports Advocacy, McGee believes the power lies elsewhere: with The Department of Transportation and Secretary Pete Buttigieg. They’re urging Buttigieg to act unilaterally and create some additional passenger protections, as past department heads have done with security measures after the Sept. 11 attacks or to counter lengthy tarmac delays.
“You’re the only sheriff in town,” McGee said. “If you don’t protect consumers, no one does.”
From the halls of Congress to the White House, airlines wield tremendous power.
Despite an avalanche of complaints from passengers seeking refunds that started when the pandemic first upended travel, no U.S. airline has been fined or penalized for denying customers their money back – the one true right we have. Only Air Canada – which resisted giving out those refunds for more than a year – was penalized.
But a proposed $25.5 million fine was watered down to just a $2 million penalty after the department struck an agreement with the airline.
Airlines will fight this. They’ve done the best they can through an almost impossibly hard two years, they’ll say. After suffering billions in losses since 2020, being forced to compensate passengers would make matters worse.
That may all be true. But the additional costs to airlines to do right by passengers would pale in comparison to tens of billions of dollars in subsidies we taxpayers have given those same airlines over the last two years.
Here’s the most important part: It’s all in the airlines’ hands. They could be responsible and measured, selling flights with enough wiggle room to recover when things go wrong and uphold the commitments they’ve made to customers. If they do that, they won’t have to pay their customers a dime in additional compensation.
But if they go too far and continue to leave their paying customers stressed and stranded, it’s time for the airlines to pay the price.