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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Airline Passenger Rights: The Federal Role in Aviation Consumer Protection

Rachel Tang
Analyst in Transportation and Industry

The 1978 deregulation of the airline industry in the United States eliminated federal control over many airline business practices, including pricing and domestic route selection. However, the federal government continues to legislate and enforce certain consumer protections for airline passengers. Congress largely determines the degree to which the rights of airline passengers are codified in law or developed through regulatory rulemaking.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are the primary congressional committees of jurisdiction over airline passenger rights. Congress can authorize or require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to enact rules on certain issues, and it can enact requirements for airlines through direct legislation. In specific cases, DOT may take enforcement actions against air carriers that violate consumer protection rules.

Most of DOT’s consumer rules are based on 49 U.S.C. Section 41712, which directs it to “protect consumers from unfair or deceptive practices.” Some are based on DOT’s authority to require air carriers in interstate transportation to provide “safe and adequate service” (49 U.S.C. §41702). The interpretation of the phrase “unfair and deceptive trade” can significantly affect the scope of DOT’s enforcement authority.

In December 2009, DOT issued a comprehensive final rule, “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections,” that expanded regulatory protections to aviation consumers. The rule established procedures related to extended ground delays involving aircraft with passengers aboard, required air carriers to address chronically delayed flights, and mandated more information disclosure to consumers. In April 2011, DOT completed a further rulemaking that strengthened the rights of air travelers in the event of oversales, flight cancellations, and delays. The rule also required consumer access to accurate and adequate information when selecting flights, and improvements in agency responsiveness to customer complaints. A key provision of the 2011 rules, requiring airlines to prominently disclose to the consumer the total cost of a flight, including all government and airline taxes and fees, was recently upheld in the federal courts.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-95), signed into law by the President on February 14, 2012, included a number of provisions regarding the rights of airline passengers and created a firmer statutory basis for the rules adopted by DOT in 2009 and 2011. Nonetheless, a number of consumer-related subjects, including disclosure of code sharing arrangements on domestic flights, compensation of passengers “bumped” from oversold flights, and disclosure of ancillary fees, remain controversial.

Date of Report: May 20, 2013
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: R43078
Price: $29.95

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