Over the last year, almost every major airline in the United States has had an operational meltdown resulting in thousands of canceled flights. But these problems are far bigger than COVID-19.
These meltdowns happened repeatedly over the holidays and now they are happening again as American Airlines canceled hundreds of flights over the weekend, including roughly 20% of its entire Sunday schedule, days after winter storms had come and gone.
Here’s the bad news: These mass cancellations are going to continue. why? Aside from a brief public relations hit and some refunded ticket sales, airlines don’t have to pay any real price for repeatedly failing customers.
In the US, travelers have shockingly few rights or protections when buying plane tickets. There’s no legal requirement for airlines to compensate travelers or even to feed you or arrange a hotel if you get stranded overnight. A traveler is only entitled placement on the next available flight (be it hours or days away) or a request for a refund and try to rebook their trip. That’s it.
Enough is enough. Airlines have received tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to survive the pandemic, yet the federal government has left it up to executives to decide how to do right by consumers. Until there are real penalties for stranding customers, airlines will continue what they’ve been doing for months: overpromising and underdelivering.
Congress or the Biden administration should hold airlines accountable, giving travelers more power by requiring airlines to compensate passengers when they significantly delay or cancel flights for reasons other than weather.
Running an airline is a hard and complex business, and there’s no question the pandemic has made that harder. But with travel on the upswing again, airlines have 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.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In Europe, getting money from the airline after a delay or cancellation is old hat. It’s been a part of their travel system 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 more than what’s available here in the US, including guaranteed compensation of up to 600 euros ( $681) when the airline delays or cancels your flight, plus other rights like meals, hotel stays for overnight delays, and more. These requirements also apply to foreign airlines departing from or flying within the European Union, which means many US-based airlines are already familiar with the rules.
And Europe isn’t alone. Canada implemented its own Air Passenger Protection Regulations in 2019 that also guarantee compensation of up to $1,000 CAD ($783 USD) in the event of lengthy delays, with smaller penalties for smaller airlines.
Holding airlines accountable by implementing passenger protections would force them to be more reliable. Despite similar challenges with the Omicron variant, European carriers have canceled just a few dozen dozen flights in recent weeks compared to the thousands of cancellations in the US The numbers are telling, and the solution is clear.
There have been several efforts over the years in the US to do just that. 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. The Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, spearheaded by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, would go even farther than the laws in Europe and Canada. Despite several tries, that bill has made little progress.
Airlines will fight passenger-rights regulations, saying they past two years were impossibly difficult, marked by billions of dollars in losses. But don’t let them off the hook: They’ve also received tens of billions in taxpayer dollars to stay afloat.
Americans rely on the services airlines provide, and it is long past time for passengers to have some protections and assurances that airlines are acting responsibly and being held accountable.
And here’s the thing: If US airlines want to avoid paying additional compensation, they can. If they focus on selling flights with enough wiggle room to recover when things go wrong and uphold the commitments they’ve made to customers, they won’t have to pay their customers another dime in additional compensation.
But if they keep going too far, spreading themselves too thin at the expense of their passengers, it’s time to hold them accountable.
Kyle Potter is the executive editor of Thrifty Traveler. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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