Section 1 provides a short title for the legislation, the "Airline Passenger Fair Treatment Act."
Section 2 provides that amendatory references in the bill are to title 49, United States Code (Transportation), unless otherwise indicated. This permits simpler amendatory language in the remainder of the bill.
Section 3 adds a new Subchapter III to chapter 417 (Operations of Carriers) of title 49. The new subchapter would provide by statute for specific additional airline consumer protections in four primary areas.
Consumer Protection Plans: A new section 41762 would be added to federal law. It would require each U.S. scheduled air carrier that operates large aircraft (having a designed passenger seating capacity of more than 60 seats) or code-shares with such an air carrier to submit a consumer protection plan to the Department of Transportation as a condition of maintaining authority to operate. The plan submitted must contain a detailed summary of the customer service and related information a passenger should receive from the airline, and the procedures the airline has in place to handle various kinds of consumer problems. Once the plan is submitted, the Department would hold the airline responsible for complying with each of the elements of its plan. Failure to comply with any assurance made in the plan would constitute a violation of the statute subject to civil penalties. A pattern or practice of failing to comply with the policies specified in the plan would also constitute a violation.
A plan submitted by a carrier under the new provision must include, at a minimum, the following for its interstate air transportation:
Disclosure of Policies and Procedures:
Denied Boarding: The carrier's policy for managing the inability to board all passengers who have confirmed reservations on a flight and who have met the carrier's check-in deadline and other requirements specified in the carrier's contract of carriage. This policy must also address the solicitation, in advance of the day of departure or on the day of departure, of volunteers for substitute arrangements; the criteria for establishing which airline consumers will be denied boarding involuntarily; and the procedures for offering compensation by vouchers (including procedures for disclosing restrictions on vouchers before an airline consumer agrees to give up his or her seat, or to accept a voucher in lieu of cash or a check for Denied Boarding Compensation, as provided for in 14 C.F.R. Part 250), substitute transportation to the destination by the same or another carrier, or other benefits to airline consumers denied boarding voluntarily or involuntarily. The carrier plan shall include whether it offers to provide substitute transportation within 2 hours of an oversold flight, even on another carrier.
Delays, Cancellations and Diversions: The carrier's policy and procedures for notifying airline consumers of delays, cancellations and diversions in five areas: (1) information that a carrier knows of more than two hours before a flight's scheduled departure time with respect to passengers at the airport and at home; (2) information that a carrier knows of during the two hours before a flight's scheduled departure until boarding begins, with respect to passengers at the airport; (3) information that a carrier knows of after boarding of a flight but before takeoff; (4) information that a carrier knows of while the aircraft is airborne; and (5) information that a carrier knows of after an aircraft has landed but before passengers deplane the aircraft.
Designation of Consumer Representative: The name of the carrier representative who is responsible for ensuring that the carrier responds directly and rapidly to airline consumer complaints, and the publication of that individual's business address, internet electronic (e-mail) address, and telephone number.
Emergency Physical Comfort and Health Plan: The carrier's plan for providing food, water, restroom facilities, and access to medical treatment to passengers aboard an aircraft that is on the ground for an extended period, to be determined by the carrier, without passenger access to the terminal. The carrier's plan shall also cover evacuation procedures in the event of seriously deficient health or comfort situations resulting from extended ground delays, as well as plans for providing aircraft with adequate heat and air conditioning during the periods in question.
Honesty in Fare Information: A statement whether the carrier's reservation agent procedures provides that consumers asking for the lowest price offered by the carrier for a particular ticket are made aware that lower-priced tickets may be offered via other carrier outlets, if that is the case.
Passengers with Special Needs: The carrier's policy, procedures, and charges for carrying unaccompanied minors, for seating families together, and for providing adjacent seats for passengers with disabilities and any attendant who may accompany such a passenger in order to perform functions for the passenger during the flight, consistent with 14 CFR 382.38.
Consumer Complaints: An assurance that written airline consumer complaints, received within 60 days of the incident at issue, will be acknowledged within 30 days of receipt, and that the carrier will provide a dispositive written response not later than 30 days after the required acknowledgment date (or receipt of needed additional data), including a description of the compensation or recourse available to the complainant, if any.
Refunds: An assurance that the airline will (1) process and transmit to the credit card issuer a credit statement for any refund due within seven business days of receipt of full documentation, or such other time period as may be set forth in the Consumer Credit Protection Act and its implementing regulations, for the refund request; (2) process and pay all fully documented cash refund requests within a reasonable period of time not to exceed 20 business days; and (3) inform refund claimants promptly, but not later than 30 days after a refund request is received, of any further information that is necessary to process a refund request.
Reservations: For reservations made prior to seven days before departure, an assurance that the fare quoted to the airline consumer will remain valid for a minimum of 48 hours, or until purchase of the transportation if sooner.
Consumer Complaint Form: An assurance that a complaint form and completion instructions are made readily available at the carrier's ticketing and gate locations for use by airline consumers. The form must be consistent with the consumer complaint categories established elsewhere.
Child Passengers: An assurance that a child younger than 2 years will not be separated from a parent or guardian during security screening.
Mishandled Baggage: An assurance that the carrier will make its best effort to deliver a passenger's checked baggage within 24 hours after arrival of the flight on which the passenger traveled and on which the passenger checked the baggage.
Training: An assurance that the carrier will provide adequate training to the employees and agents of the carrier to carry out the plan.
Plan Funding: An assurance that the carrier will commit sufficient resources to carry out the plan.
Monthly Consumer Reports: Two monthly reports would be filed with the Department by air carriers. The first is a report of all written consumer complaints filed during the month, identified by 19 complaint categories (e.g., oversales, baggage, disability discrimination), and a listing of prior complaints that were not handled within 60 days of receipt. The second is a report of actual percent of frequent flyer award tickets used on the most popular domestic and international routes served by the carrier. This focuses on the areas where consumers often complain that the available frequent flyer sets is held artificially and deceptively low by the carrier. A carrier that does not limit the number of seats available is not required to report.
Consumer Information: The new statutory language would require that the monthly data on consumer complaints and frequent flyer awards be made readily available to consumers, so that consumers can make choices among carriers and find the ones that provide the best service. The data would be placed on any public Web site maintained by the carrier, and would also be available at any of the carrier's ticketing locations, just as the "contract of carriage" currently is. The provision would require separate reporting of complaints about treatment of the disabled, as recommended recently by the National Council on Disability.
The air carrier would also be required to link to the Department of Transportation's monthly consumer information and other consumer aids to its web site, or to make them a part of their own traveler information material.
Increased Compensation for Denied Boarding and Baggage Liability: In the case of an oversold flight for which a carrier denies boarding to a traveler, the current minimum compensation that must be offered is $200 if arrival at the final destination is delayed up to 4 hours, and $400 if the delay is greater. In the case of mishandled baggage, the current minimum liability (which often operates as the maximum as well) is $1250. A carrier can exclude defined valuables contained in the baggage from any liability, and assistive devices such as wheelchairs now fall within the liability limit. The new statutory language would double the amount of minimum compensation, provide for future inflationary adjustments, and permit the Department of Transportation to change these levels through rulemaking. A carrier would be required to provide conspicuous, actual notice to a passenger in advance of accepting the baggage before excluding valuables, damage to fragile items, and spoilage of perishable items from liability. Assistive devices could not be included within any liability cap on baggage.
Section 4 provides explicit statutory protections for the disabled and other groups that face discrimination in air travel. The existing "Air Carrier Access Act" protections provided in domestic air travel (49 U.S.C. 41705) would be extended to international service. The existing bar against other forms of discrimination in international service (49 U.S.C. 41310(a)) would be stated explicitly for domestic service. The Department of Justice would be provided new authority to bring litigation in this area. The existing $1100 per-violation civil penalty would be increased for these new provisions. An aggrieved party would be entitled to bring a private-right-of-action to enforce these rights, and could be awarded reasonable attorney fees in the event of successful suit. The United States could also join in the private suit.
Section 5 would clarify that the current duty of a codesharing air carrier to ensure the quality of service of its codeshare partners (49 U.S.C. 41739 (Air carrier obligations)) must extend to cooperating in preserving a significant level of service to essential air service communities in the event that a strike or other comparable event interrupts the major carrier's service. This proposal would make explicit in statute what the Department successfully argued in the case of the recent Northwest Airlines strike--that the major carrier is obligated under section 41739 to support continued operation of its EAS affiliates to the extent is not prevented from so doing by the disruption.
Section 6 would increase the existing civil penalties under title 49 for violations of airline consumer protection provisions. This includes not only the new requirements established by this Act, but also the existing protections of 49 U.S.C. 41712 against a carrier's "unfair or deceptive practice" or "unfair method of competition."