The U.S. Department of Transportation is mulling over a number of new regulations that will affect air travelers, including mandating that airlines allow passengers to cancel airfare without penalty for up to 24 hours after booking and requiring that checked baggage fees be refunded if luggage is delayed or lost.
The concept of refunding bag fees for delayed delivery makes a great deal of sense to me, though airlines should not need the government’s prodding to adapt such a policy. Travelers pay as much as $50 for the transportation of a bag to a specific destination at a specific time. When an airline fails to uphold their end of the bargain, it is only right that they refund most or all of the fee. The idea that an airline can charge for a service, fail to perform, then still reap the benefits of the deal strikes me as unreasonable. While consumers can opt to forgo checked baggage in favor of carry-on bags or fly an airline that has more customer-friendly baggage policy, that is not as easy as it sounds–baggage fees are not always made clear upfront.
And that’s the second issue the DOT aims to address: more transparent fee disclosure. While I am a bit conflicted over whether government intrusion is necessary in the case of baggage fees (afterall, airlines made over $3BN in fees last year, primarily from checked baggage–reining in that cash cow might lead to higher fares for us smart ones who don’t check bags…) I fully support making airlines disclose a fee schedule upfront, making it crystal clear what additional costs passengers would have to fork over to complete their trip. Imagine a kettle traveler who books a ticket on Spirit Airlines and shows up at the airport with a large checked bag and a carry-on bag. Check the bag? $38. Carry-on bag in the overhead bin? $40. Water on your flight? $3. The traveler should have checked this information beforehand, but it is not always easy to find, even for the more experienced traveler. (It took me a bit of searching to find the prices indicated above).
Lastly, the DOT wants airlines to give customers the chance to cancel their reservations without penalty up to 24 hours after booking. I love 24-hour grace periods (or 24-hour holds like on AA) and use them all the time. I tend to stay away from carriers that do not offer them and appreciate having a bit of flexibility, making me more likely to book a fare (and end up keeping it) than if no cancelation policy existed. I wouldn’t require a 24-hour grace period, but I would support a regulation allowing for the correction of scrivener’s error. Most airlines are good about cancelling or correcting a name misspelling or date error if you call up right away after booking. Customers have a responsibility to be careful when booking, but we don’t serve the airlines, the airlines serve us (and their stockholders of course). Refusing to correct a simple mistake with a few keystrokes strikes me as manifestly unreasonable and contrary to sound public policy.
Like many government regulations that are left for the bureaucrats to clarify, the new rules are not exactly the definition of clarity. The new DOT rule would require airlines to refund the fee if a bag is lost or not delivered in a "timely" manner. Yeah, that’s it. So what defines timely? I say 45 minutes. The airlines might like something close to 48 hours…