After a spike in complaints about airline refunds when the Covid-19 pandemic first struck, the US Department of Transportation unveiled on Friday a rule that will impact how travelers claim mistreatment.
The rule formally defines the words “unfair” and “deceptive” – two legal terms governing how airlines and ticket agents may interact with customers. It also says passengers need not prove an airline’s intent when claiming a violation. The Transportation Department said the rule formalizes the way it has interpreted those words in the past.
The rule matters because it now gives travelers specific language to cite in their claims.
Airlines had asked for the rule and said a formal definition would provide regulatory certainty. Southwest said the rule would benefit the economy. Spirit Airlines said with the lack of a rule, “the Department can levy punitive fines on carriers for practices allegedly violating ill-defined regulations.” However, the carriers did ask for changes the Transportation Department did not incorporate. Spirit, for example, asked for regulators to change a word to make the rule less subjective.
But the department also noted consumer advocacy groups, several lawmakers, and two members of the Federal Trade Commission argued the definitions “were either unnecessary or weakened consumer protection.” The FTC shares jurisdiction over travel agents with the Transportation Department.
The rule change got underway in February 2019, more than a year before formal claims against airlines spiked as the pandemic spread and flights were canceled. Customers said the airlines resisted refund requests and only provided vouchers for a later flight or avoided providing compensation by changes to the fine print.