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Biden wants airlines to pay passengers whose flights are hit by preventable delays

Travelers wait in line at the Southwest Airlines ticketing counter at Nashville International Airport after the airline cancelled thousands of flights in Nashville, Tennessee, on December 27, 2022.
Seth Herald
/
AFP via Getty Images
Travelers wait in line at the Southwest Airlines ticketing counter at Nashville International Airport after the airline cancelled thousands of flights in Nashville, Tennessee, on December 27, 2022.

Updated May 8, 2023 at 2:48 PM ET

The Biden administration is seeking new regulations to address the unexpected costs and inconveniences experienced by passengers after the widespread flight disruptions this past winter.

Those regulations could include requiring airlines to compensate passengers as well as cover their meals, hotel rooms and rebooking fees in cases of preventable delays and cancelations.

President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced the start of the rulemaking process on Monday afternoon — just weeks before the busy summer travel season.

"Our top priority has been to get American travelers a better deal," Biden said at the announcement. "This is just about being fair."

As of right now, virtually no U.S. airline offers cash compensation in addition to refunds or amenities, Biden pointed out. Historically, the federal government only has required airlines to pay back the cost of the flight ticket that was delayed or canceled.

In an interview on Monday with NPR's All Things Considered, Buttigieg said that the compensation offered by airlines, like mile points, often is insufficient.

"Passengers might not know that could only be worth maybe $10 or $20 when in fact, they're entitled to hundreds," he said. "We want to make that easier. We don't want you to have to fight for it."

Policies mandating this type of additional compensation already exist in Canada and the European Union, the White House said — and one study showed such regulations led to fewer flight delays in the EU.

In addition to the new rules, the Transportation Department has expanded its onlineAirline Customer Service Dashboard, which tracks each airline's policies on refunds and compensation when flights are cancelled or delayed.

The pressure for airlines to improve their customer service comes after widespread flight disruptions during the holiday season. Southwest canceled more than 16,000 flights between Christmas and the New Year, as massive winter storm coincided with the collapse of the company's outdated crew-scheduling software. Passengers throughout the country were left stranded for days with unexpected costs.

During a Senate hearing in February, Southwest Airlines chief operating officer Andrew Watterson said the company was working hard to refund airfares for canceled flights and to reimburse customers for extra expenses that they incurred, like hotels and meals.

"I want to sincerely and humbly apologize to those impacted by the disruption. It caused a tremendous amount of anguish, inconvenience and missed opportunities for our customers and our employees," Watterson said.

Despite the airline's efforts, the Transportation Department is currently investigating the airline company's holiday travel debacle and whether Southwest set unrealistic flight schedules.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.