By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden said on Monday his administration had cracked down on U.S. airlines to improve treatment of passengers, a claim rejected by the carriers.
Biden said prior to changes made in customer service plans by major airlines “if your flight was canceled or delayed, no top airline guaranteed covering your cost of hotels and meals.”
“My administration is also cracking down on the airlines to get passengers fairer treatment,” Biden said. “Secretary Buttigieg, at my request, called them out.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told airlines in August he would publish their responses in a “dashboard” and gave them two weeks to disclose what customer service protections they would commit to offering when delays were the fault of the airline.
“As of last week, airlines now cover hotels – eight of them; nine (cover) meals; nine rebook for free,” Biden said. “We’re going to get more rules in the works to protect airline passengers even further.”
Airlines for America, a trade group representing American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and others, took exception to Biden’s assertions.
“It is not accurate to say that no U.S. airline covered meals and hotels for passengers severely impacted by carrier-caused flight delays and cancellations,” it said in a statement, adding that the dashboard reflected airlines formalizing existing policies.
Airlines canceled or delayed tens of thousands of flights this summer as they struggled to ramp up staffing as demand returned from historic COVID pandemic lows, and Congress has pressed the administration to take a tougher line on airlines.
The Department of Transportation (USDOT) has five categories for rating airlines on for both canceled and delayed flights, including whether they provide meal vouchers for three-hour delays, and pay for hotels, transportation to lodging for stranded passengers and rebooking passengers on the same or another airline. They get checkmarks for providing such services.
American, Delta, United and JetBlue all got five checkmarks for both delayed and canceled flight policies, while Southwest and Alaskan Airlines got four checkmarks. Low-cost carrier Allegiant initially received no checkmarks but now has three for hotel, transportation and rebooking policies.
Buttigieg told Reuters last month the U.S. approach to regulating airlines and ensuring passengers are properly treated needs improvements.
USDOT has proposed rules to strengthen airline passenger protection and require airlines to provide vouchers 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 bags that are significantly delayed and for services like onboard Wi-Fi that do not work.
Buttigieg said in July USDOT had completed investigations into 10 unnamed airline over delayed or withheld passenger refunds and plans enforcement actions.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bill Berkrot)