Biden backs US crackdown on airlines over passenger treatment

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden said on Monday his administration had grounded U.S. airlines to improve the treatment of passengers, a claim rejected by carriers.

Biden said before the changes made to customer service plans by major airlines “if your flight is canceled or delayed, no major airline is guaranteed to cover the cost of your hotels and meals.”

“My administration is also cracking down on airlines to give passengers fairer treatment,” Biden said. “Secretary Buttigieg, at my request, called them out.”

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told airlines in August that he would publish their responses on a “dashboard” and gave them two weeks to reveal what customer service protections they would commit to when delays were the airline’s fault.

“As of last week, airlines are now covering hotels — eight of them, nine (covering) meals, nine rebooking for free,” Biden said. “We will get more rules in the works to protect airline passengers even more.”

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and others, took exception to Biden’s claims.

“It is not accurate to say that no US airline covered meals and hotels for passengers severely affected by carrier-caused flight delays and cancellations,” it said in a statement, adding that the dashboard reflects airlines that formalize existing policies.

Airlines have canceled or delayed tens of thousands of flights this summer as they scramble to increase staff as demand rebounds from record lows during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Congress has pressed the administration to take a tougher stance on airlines.

The Department of Transportation (USDOT) has five categories for rating airlines for both canceled and delayed flights, including whether they provide meal vouchers for three-hour delays and pay for hotels, transportation to accommodations for stranded passengers, and rebooking passengers on the same or another airline. They receive tick marks for providing such services.

American, Delta, United and JetBlue all received five check marks for both delayed and canceled flight policies, while Southwest and Alaskan Airlines received four check marks. Low-cost carrier Allegiant initially received no check marks, but now has three for its hotel, transfer and rebooking policies.

Buttigieg told Reuters last month that the US approach to regulating airlines and ensuring that passengers are treated appropriately needs improvements.

The USDOT has proposed rules to strengthen protections for airline passengers and require airlines to provide coupons that do not expire when passengers are unable to fly for pandemic-related reasons.

Buttigieg plans to finalize a new rule proposed in July 2021 to require passenger airlines to refund fees for significantly delayed bags and for services such as onboard Wi-Fi that don’t work.

Buttigieg said that in July the USDOT had completed investigations into 10 unnamed airlines regarding late or withheld refunds to passengers and plan enforcement actions.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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