PERKINS-AIRLINES-20200519

United airlines aircraft flies in the dark clouds with sunlight at the cockpit.

Many large airlines are planning to mount fairly aggressive schedules starting between now and the middle of June. Schedules won’t hit anywhere close to pre-virus levels, but maybe they’ll reach a quarter to a half of summer normal — and that’s a lot higher than the current five percent or so.

When they do, they’ll try to limit possible COVID-19 transmission. They’ll employ some combination of checking passenger temperatures prior to boarding, extra-rigorous cleaning and disinfecting, limiting food and drink service, spacing out boarding and deplaning, and requiring passengers to wear face masks. Whether or not those procedures will really work is anyone’s guess right now.

Some folks have speculated that airlines will also continue to enforce a degree of social isolation by blocking middle seats. And that might really happen — but only temporarily, until traffic volumes return: The airlines’ fundamental economic model fails completely when they can’t sell middle seats.

Believing that more robust isolation will be necessary, the National Association of Airline Passengers has submitted an official request that the Dept. of Transportation (DoT) establish a single, uniform standard applicable to all carriers for the safe loading, seating, and disembarking passengers for the duration of the current public health emergency — a standard that specifically includes social distancing. I’m reasonably sure the airlines will vigorously oppose this idea: Keeping air travelers six feet apart through the entire flight process is an economic non-starter for airlines.

Meanwhile, for the immediate present, airlines are still less than 100 percent compliant on rules governing refunds for cancelled flights. On May 12, the DoT issued its second enforcement notice to airlines, emphasizing regulations about how they must protect passengers during the COVID-19 epidemic:

— Passengers have a clear and unequivocal right to a cash or charge-card refund when an airline cancels or makes a significant change to a flight on which travelers have tickets and the passengers decline alternative offers. This applies to all tickets, including nominally nonrefundables. But the notice adds that the definitions of “significant change” and “cancellation” are not defined in regulations.

— Passengers who cancel flights before an airline cancels are not legally entitled to cash refunds, even when cancellations are based on COVID-19 problems; they get only what the airline says they get.

— Online and retail ticket agents are required to provide refunds in compliance with refund rules.

— Airlines cannot retroactively change their own refund rules. Travelers are entitled to whatever they are due according to policies that were in effect at the time they bought tickets.

— When refunds are due, airlines may offer vouchers or credits toward future travel in lieu of refunds, so long as they inform travelers that they have the right of refund if they wish.

— Airlines must issue refunds promptly, as currently defined as seven business days for credit card purchases or 20 days for cash or check. But the notice adds that DoT recognizes the current heavy workload in airline offices and will use “discretion” in taking action.

— DoT recognizes the airlines’ financial plight and will “exercise its enforcement discretion” regarding lines that are not fully compliant.

The key take-away is in the final point. So far, DoT’s “discretion” translates into “no action.” And, unfortunately, any enforcement rule that doesn’t include a “what happens then they don’t” provision is pure fluff. To date, as far as I know, DoT has not taken action against any airline for failure to make required refunds. So, at least for now, if an airline stonewalls your refund request, all you can do is submit a complaint to the DoT. To me, that’s a bit short of effective consumer protection.

In all this, I’ve been surprised that U.S. airlines haven’t encouraged travelers to take future credit by adding some sort of bonus. Some foreign lines do this, and it seems to work.

The Europeans, at least, seem to be doing a bit better. Widespread reports indicate that Air France/KLM, a conspicuous holdout against mandatory refund rules, is starting to make real cash refunds. At least that’s a start.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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