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Transportation Department cracks down on airline 'junk fees'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Air travel can be a headache with flight cancellations and delays. Well, today, the Department of Transportation may be making that hassle a little more palatable. It's got a new rule out that would compensate travelers whose flights are canceled or are changed in a big way. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is with us now to talk about this. Good morning. Thanks for being on the program.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

FADEL: So what's the big change here?

BUTTIGIEG: So the big change here has to do with how and when you get your money back. It is already a matter of policy that you're entitled to a cash refund if your flight gets canceled. But right now, you have to know that. You have to go in. You have to fight for it. Now we are making that the default. An airline is required to promptly return payment to the same way that you paid. If it's miles, they give you your miles back. If it's a credit card, the money shows back on your credit card without you having to ask. We're also defining a significant delay. If your flight is delayed more than three hours domestically, more than six hours internationally...

FADEL: Yeah.

BUTTIGIEG: ...Same thing. If you have that delay, you wind up not taking that flight, you get your money back.

FADEL: Now, what prompted this rule change? Like you said, there are ways that customers have been able to get refunds in the past. But what prompted this?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, let me give you an example of something that would often happen. You would have a major delay or have your flight canceled. And the airline would say, we're going to offer you 5,000 miles, which might sound good. But that might be worth 50 bucks when you're actually entitled to 300. And by taking the miles, you give up your right to get the cash. This changes the default so that you get the cash unless you proactively say as a customer that you'll take some other form of compensation.

It also defines what a significant delay is. This is important because sometimes there'd be a scenario where your flight gets delayed by many hours. You book a different ticket on a different airline that's more expensive just to be able to get to where you're going.

FADEL: Yeah.

BUTTIGIEG: But you never get your money back on the original flight.

FADEL: That's happened to me before.

BUTTIGIEG: You know, we hear so many of these stories because we've been taking in these complaints. Those have informed this rule. There's also a part of the rule that covers fee transparency, requiring airlines to make it very clear upfront what is included in the price of a ticket. Do you have to pay extra for bags? Will you have to pay a change fee if you try to cancel? It finally standardizes that level of transparency and clarifies that if you don't get what you paid for on one of those - like, you pay extra for baggage, but the baggage doesn't get there, or you pay for Wi-Fi, but the Wi-Fi doesn't work - it specifies for the first time that you're entitled to a refund on that as well.

FADEL: And what happens - well, first of all, how do airlines feel about this rule, these rules that are coming into play? And what happens if the airlines don't comply?

BUTTIGIEG: Look, airlines don't love these expansions of passenger rights, but I believe this is to the benefit of the sector as a whole because passengers will have more confidence that it's worth that ticket in the first place and just have more confidence in the aviation sector. So this is really about making sure that we create a better experience for passengers and a stronger aviation sector in the United States.

If an airline is not living up to this rule or any rule, you can let us know at our website, flightrights.gov. Not only is there information about what you can expect and demand, but also a way to file a complaint with us. If the airline's not refunding you promptly or doing what they ought to be doing, let us know. We'll follow up.

FADEL: Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, thank you for your time.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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