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Yesterday, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a broad range of new or enhanced airline consumer protections that will go into effect in September.

The move occurred just days after the European Union announced a review of rules that could make it easier for airlines to avoid expensive passenger compensation requirements when flights are cancelled for reasons well beyond their control.

As is often the case with governmental regulations on both sides of the Atlantic, the new US rules are lengthy (213 pages!) and full of loopholes. Here are the details that matter to frequent travellers most:

  • Current rules that impose heavy fines on US airlines for tarmac delays will be extended to cover international flights and non-US carriers operating in the United States. For domestic US flights, the tarmac delay limit is three hours. For international flights, the limit will be four hours. Carriers will be required to provide trapped passengers with status updates at least every 30 minutes.
  • All airlines must offer passengers a flight status update service (i.e., email or text) to which they can subscribe. They must also notify passengers within 30 minutes of becoming aware of a situation that will delay, divert or cancel a flight.
  • Airlines will have to hold all reservations for at least 24 hours at the quoted fare, without payment. If a payment is made at the time of reservation, it must be refunded if a passenger cancels the purchase within 24 hours. (Many airlines already do this; the new rules force all of them to do so, uniformly.)
  • Airlines are now required to refund checked baggage fees (which generally run from $20 to $35 each way) in addition to compensating passengers when bags are lost or destroyed. However, new rules do not force airlines to refund fees if bags are simply delayed and eventually delivered to owners.
  • Airlines must clearly disclose all potential fees via prominent links on their homepages. The DOT says these fees and charges include checked, carry-on, oversized or overweight bags, meals, on-board entertainment, Internet access, pillows, blankets, premium coach seating, phone reservations, early boarding, ticket changes or cancellations, unaccompanied minors and pets.
  • When airlines quote, display or advertise fares, they must always include all government taxes and fees, which in some cases can make up as much as half of the total price of a ticket. (This should make comparing apples to apples much easier when fare shopping.)
  • Compensation for involuntarily bumped passengers will double to a maximum of $650 if the replacement flight results in a delay of less than two hours or $1,300 if the delay is more than two hours. This applies to both purchased and frequent flyer award tickets. (Note: US passengers are not entitled to any compensation for flight delays - these rules only apply if a passenger is involuntarily bumped.)

Chris McGinnis is the Business Travel columnist for BBC Travel

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