Many travelers have resigned themselves to paying $25 or more to check a bag when flying. But that fee becomes especially onerous when the bag doesn't show up on the carousel at baggage claim.
The White House is proposing a new rule that would require airlines to refund the checked baggage fee if luggage is "substantially delayed," though it does not define "substantially."
NPR aviation reporter David Schaper says airlines are already required to compensate passengers for lost or damaged luggage. Schaper quotes Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx arguing that this next step just makes sense: "If you pay the baggage fee and your bags are not returned to you in a timely manner, you've essentially paid for a service you're not getting."
An airline industry spokesperson says the regulation is unnecessary because many airlines already offer baggage fee refunds on their own and some will even reimburse travelers for the cost of clothes they need to purchase if luggage is substantially delayed. Some airlines don't charge fees for checking luggage as a way of gaining a competitive advantage.
The Obama administration is announcing additional proposed rules designed to address common passenger complaints about airline service.
One of the targets is travel-booking websites that offer comparison-ticket shopping. Such websites commonly rank airlines higher or lower based on undisclosed payments or other business incentives.
A new rule proposed by the Transportation Department would require such websites to be neutral "or disclose their bias upfront so consumers can truly comparison shop when booking flights," Schaper reports.
Another focus of the new rulemaking is airlines' on-time record. "Major airlines are now only required to disclose on-time performance data for the flights they operate," reports Schaper, "not those of those small regional partners that the big legacy carriers partner with."
The new rules will require those regional carriers, including Air Wisconsin, Allegiant, Endeavor, Envoy, Mesa, Republic and Shuttle America, to also report their on-time performance data.
The Transportation Department also announced it would investigate a longtime practice by some airlines of preventing various travel websites from showing their fares. Airlines do this to direct traffic to their own web sites where they can upsell passengers on seat assignments and upgrades.
A spokesperson for the industry group Airlines for America said that airlines have the same goal of providing quality service, but improvement is already taking place in the marketplace without more government regulation.
"We've said for a long time that we think the airline industry is probably the most regulated deregulated industry you can find, and this is another example of it," says spokesperson Jean Medina.
The new rules are a "big win" for airline passengers, says Charlie Leocha, president of the advocacy group Travelers United and a member of the Department of Transportation's consumer advisory committee. But Leocha also criticizes the administration for delaying action on some other proposed rules that he says would better protect consumers.
The travel site TripAdvisor applauded DOT's move to investigate whether the practice by some airlines of restricting access to fare information is an unfair business practice. In a statement, a spokesperson calls the investigation into the "anti-competitive and anti-consumer practice ... a step in the right direction."
But Airlines for America says that forcing airlines to share fare information widely with travel sites "would only benefit those third parties who distribute tickets, not the flying public."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now let's check your bags, as well as your bag fees. The federal government wants airlines to refund their checked bag charges if the bag does not show up when you do. NPR's David Schaper is covering this story in Chicago.
Good morning, David.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what's the new rule here?
SCHAPER: Well, this is one of several new rules the government wants to impose to boost competition within the airline industry and better protect consumers. Airlines can still charge the checked baggage fee if they choose, but - and there are some airlines that don't charge for checked baggage. But if they do and the bags don't arrive on your flight or your luggage is what they call substantially delayed, the government is now going to require airlines to refund that checked baggage fee. Here is Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANTHONY FOXX: If you pay the baggage fee and your bags are not returned to you in a timely manner, you've essentially paid for a service you're not getting.
SCHAPER: Now, this new federal rules states that the refunds must be provided for baggage that is substantially delayed. But, of course, it does not define substantial delay.
SCHAPER: In addition, the airlines will also have to more clearly report how often they lose or delay luggage and lost and damaged and mishandled wheelchairs - which is surprisingly common - so customers can easily compare airlines on these measures.
INSKEEP: David, let's just remember, bag fees of this sort are a relatively new thing. This is a trend in the last, I don't know, decade or so where an airline offers you a very cheap fare and then they rack up extra charges, including for bags. Is anything going to change about that?
SCHAPER: Well, the government wants all of these extra fees, whether it be for extra leg room or some airlines even charge a fee for a carry-on bag, all of those fees must be disclosed. But most airlines already do that. In addition, the Obama administration wants fuller disclosure of the relationships that the airlines might have with those travel booking websites. These are sites like Travelocity, Expedia, KAYAK. There are all kinds of them out there.
And a lot of us consumers just assumed that these sites are neutral and giving us a list of the lowest fares and the best flights that fit our schedule. But many of them actually favor certain airlines and are then compensated for favoring those airlines. This new rule the government is imposing will prohibit the websites from doing that. And they will have to disclose any bias that they have toward certain airlines.
INSKEEP: What do the airlines say about these changes, David?
SCHAPER: Well, the airlines are not too crazy about them. They say that market forces already do many of the things that the government is trying to force them to do and this regulation is just not needed. Jean Medina is a spokeswoman for the industry group called Airlines for America.
JEAN MEDINA: We've said for a long time that we think the airline industry is probably the most regulated, deregulated industry you can find, and this is another example of it.
SCHAPER: Medina says that it's really hard to find another industry that has been more transparent when it comes to pricing just because there is so much information about airfares already out there. Many travelers, of course, disagree. They say a lot of these fees are hidden and it's hard to find the best deal.
INSKEEP: David, always a pleasure talking with you.
SCHAPER: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Schaper reporting this morning from Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.