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Government To Expand Airline Passenger Protection Rules

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DETROIT (WWJ/AP)- Waiting for hours and hours on the tarmac could soon be a thing of the past. It’s just one of the changes that you’ll see in a new airline passengers bill of rights, being unveiled Wednesday by the Transportation Department.

Federal officials are expanding a tarmac-delay rule to prohibit airlines from holding passengers on stranded international flights for longer than four hours.

The change stems from a late-December debacle in which several planes loaded with international travelers were stuck for up to 10 hours on snowy New York runways.

The new passenger-protection rule will also require airlines to refund bag fees if they lose customers’ luggage, to include fees and taxes in advertised prices, and to pay passengers more if they get bumped from oversold flights.

Most of the new regulations will take effect in four months.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose department will issue the new orders, said they were designed to make sure airlines treat travelers fairly.

“It’s just common sense that if an airline loses your bag or you get bumped from a flight because it was oversold, you should be reimbursed,” LaHood told the Associated Press.

The new rule expands upon last year’s 3-hour limit on tarmac delays for flights within the U.S.

Consumer advocates complained that the rule didn’t cover foreign airlines or international flights operated by U.S. ones, but their protests seemed to be ignored until the December blizzard shut down airports on the East Coast and left several flights stranded at New York airports with no chance for passengers to get off the plane for hours.

Transportation Department officials acknowledged the incident was a major factor in their decision to impose a 4-hour limit on tarmac delays for international flights.

Airlines that break the rule can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger – more than $10 million for a fully loaded superjumbo jet like an Airbus A380 – although the government has never imposed anything close to the maximum.

Airlines also will be required to provide food, water, working toilets and medical care after two hours.

In comments to the Transportation Department, airline trade groups said the threat of penalties will force them to cancel more international flights if there’s a chance of a long delay. They warned that with some international flights operating only once every few days, passengers could be stranded far longer under the new rule.

On refunding bag fees for lost luggage, the Transportation Department decided not to require refunds for bags delivered late. Airlines are already required to compensate passengers for the value of lost bags, regardless of whether a fee was paid to check them.

Wednesday’s rule confirms another change that the regulators proposed last year – they will raise compensation for passengers bumped off oversold flights. Currently, it’s up to $400 or $800 depending on how long a passenger is delayed before catching a makeup flight. Those limits will be raised to $650 and $1,330.

The new rule also requires airlines to prominently disclose all potential fees – for checking bags, changing reservations, upgrading seats, and so on — on their websites. Airlines will also have to include taxes and government-imposed fees in the fares that they advertise.

WWJ’s Ron Dewey was at Metro Airport to hear passengers’ reaction to the new rules.

While most passengers were excited to hear news of the recent changes, one traveller said the rules would have been handy for a previous flight when he was trapped on the tarmac for hours.

“Once we were on the tarmac for three of four hours. There were storms in Detroit, that’s what the deal was, so they just took  us from the gate and parked us out someplace and we had to just wait,” said Jack Druniak of Livonia, who approves the new rule.

“I believe it is important to have protection for the consumer, and that’s who we the passengers are, the consumer,” said Barbara Moore of Seattle, who believes the new rules only makes sense.

“It’s not always the case, that’s for sure, but you  know, hopefully they’ll try to do their best to make that happen for us,” said Scott Conrad of Toledo, who just wants a smoother travel experience.

The consensus for passengers at Detroit Metro? Any rule that gets them out of the airport faster and makes for a smoother flight, works for them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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