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DOT wants vouchers for air travelers who cancel flights due to covid

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The Department of Transportation proposes that airlines issue vouchers with no expiration date to passengers who catch the coronavirus or other communicable diseases and decide to cancel their travel plans, as part of the expansion of boosted financial protections by complaints from the early days of the pandemic.

The department called for change on Wednesday in a detailed proposal to update airline reimbursement rules.

“When Americans buy a plane ticket, they need to get to their destination safely, reliably and affordably,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “This proposed new rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from airlines.”

Under current rules, passengers are generally entitled to financial protection when the airline cancels or significantly changes their flight. And while airlines waived change fees for many ticket types early in the pandemic, travelers have fewer legal protections when they decide not to use a ticket they’ve booked.

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The new rules would require airlines to issue credits with no expiry date to ticket holders who decide not to travel because they are sick or due to government restrictions on travel – including, for example, the imposition of a quarantine requirement for arriving passengers. In the case of airlines that receive future government bailouts, the rule would require them to issue refunds rather than credits.

The Department for Transport says that without the protections, potential passengers have a choice between traveling and risking the health of other passengers or suffering financial loss.

“These types of consumer actions are not in the public interest,” the department wrote in the 116-page proposal.

In the case of sick passengers, the department said only “serious” illnesses that could be spread on an airplane would qualify for a passenger voucher. This would include covid-19, “because it is easily transmissible in the aircraft cabin and would likely cause significant health consequences for many people”, but not a common cold, according to the proposal.

The ministry acknowledged airlines issued credits early in the pandemic, but said it had received complaints from consumers that they expired before they could be used. Others complained that vouchers were limited to the route they originally booked.

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Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the largest carriers, declined to comment on the proposal.

But according to a summary included in the Department of Transportation’s proposal, industry representatives warned at a consultative meeting last year that new regulations affecting non-refundable tickets “could result in the elimination of this fare product. at low price”.

John Breyault, vice president of the National Consumers League, said Wednesday’s proposal and other recent actions by the department represent a shift in attitude about consumer protection from the Trump administration.

“What you’re seeing, maybe a little late, is a DOT that looks like it’s ready to be more active,” he said.

Wednesday’s proposal is the first step in what could be a lengthy rule-drafting process. The public has 90 days to comment, including in a virtual meeting on Aug. 22, and the Department of Transportation must then weigh those comments before finalizing the rules.

As part of the proposal, the department is also seeking to clarify that a canceled flight eligible for a refund is any flight that an airline had offered in its reservation system and then removed for any reason. The proposal would also define what it means for an airline to significantly change a flight, a step which also triggers refund requirements.

The Transportation Department was inundated with complaints about refunds when the pandemic began more than two years ago. Those complaints waned for a while, but the issue of consumer protection for passengers has resurfaced this year as airlines find themselves ill-prepared for an increase in travel demand. This has led to short-staffed carriers cutting schedules and canceling flights.

On Monday, a group of House and Senate Democratic members introduced legislation that would build on existing federal reimbursement rules. The bill would entitle passengers to refunds if they canceled their tickets at least 48 hours before departure.

“Enough: Travelers are tired of wasting their valuable time battling airlines to receive their legally required cash refunds,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), one of the sponsors of the bill, in a press release. “And they are tired of making flight reservations months in advance, only to face a health scare that forces them to choose between canceling a non-refundable flight or traveling and risking the health of their fellow travelers. travel.”