Joey Rankin, 13, waits with her luggage at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 7, 2017. (Photo: AL DIAZ, AP)
WASHINGTON – As the Transportation Department sharpens its proposal for airline refunds for delayed luggage, carriers and consumer groups are disagreeing about how late is "late.
Airlines warned that setting the deadline too short for luggage to arrive without a fine could have the unintended result of raising the risk of lost bags and penalizing carriers for allowing passengers to take an earlier flight without the luggage.
But consumer groups and travel agents said the deadlines should be as short as possible, to encourage airlines to have a passenger and luggage on the same flight.
“Indeed, we are of the opinion that each additional hour baggage may be delayed without triggering the right to receive a fee refund represents an incrementally greater inconvenience to the customer,” Peter Lobasso, general counsel to the American Society of Travel Agents, told the department.
Disputes also focus on when the clock stops ticking and how refunds are paid. The department collected comments until Jan. 17 and now must decide how to resolve each of the details.
Congress told the department in a July law to require refunds when luggage arrives more than 12 hours after a domestic flight or 15 hours after an international flight. The transportation secretary could extend those deadlines to 18 hours for domestic and 30 hours for international flights.
The growth of fees in recent years for services such as luggage and seating preferences sparked the call for refunds. The stakes are high: airlines collected $3.8 billion in bag fees in 2015, the most recent full year available.
Airlines received 3.24 reports of mishandled bags for every 1,000 passengers in 2015, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The reports represented nearly 2 million bags on domestic flights that were lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered.
The carriers have been improving their performance. The rate of mishandled bags dropped to 2.02 per 1,000 passengers in November, the lowest since the department began keeping track in 1987.
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“This strong, positive outcome reflects airlines’ ongoing commitment to improving their customers’ air-travel experience,” James Casey, deputy general counsel for Airlines for America, a trade group representing most of the largest carriers.
Part of the reason Congress called for refunds is because airlines now each set their own policies.
For example, Delta Air Lines provides 2,500 bonus miles if bags aren’t on a carousel within 20 minutes of a flight, and a $50 electronic travel voucher for bags delayed more than 12 hours. Delta said the advantage of a voucher is that an inconvenienced business traveler could receive the benefit from the delay rather than having a refund go to the corporate travel account.
Delta warned that any deadline shorter than 24 hours raises the risk of lost luggage because airlines would use other carriers to ship bags, which would make arrangements more complex.
Delta said 0.08% of its checked bags were delayed in 2015. If refunds were required after 12 hours, refunds would have totaled $2.6 million on 46,248 bags. If after 18 hours, refunds would have totaled $1.5 million on 26,930 bags.
Spirit Airlines, an ultra-low cost carrier, said it has about 59,000 delayed bags per year. Because the airline has fewer flights to specific cities than legacy carriers, delays can be longer. Spirit said the average delay is nearly 32 hours for domestic flights and nearly 44 hours for international flights.
“In this connection, Spirit would urge the department to require carriers to transport delayed baggage for other airlines, when capacity is availability,” Joanne Young and David Kirstein, lawyers for Spirit, told the department.
Airlines generally urged that the clock stop running when a delayed bag reaches the destination airport, rather than the traveler, because delivering bags to a hotel as a courtesy takes longer.
“Given the wide variety of variables in this regard, we recommend that the clock stop when the bag is delivered to the reclaim,” Douglas Lavin, vice president for external relations at the International Air Transport Association, a trade group for airlines worldwide.
Travelers want faster penalties if they don’t receive the service they expect.
Consumers Union said the clock should stop when the traveler receives the bag.
“The passenger has already been inconvenienced once; requiring the passenger to make an extra trip back to the airport only compounds the inconvenience,” William McGee and George Slover told the department for Consumers Union.
Vouchers are unacceptable and refunds should be made to the credit card that paid for the ticket, or in cash, they said.
Kathleen Hanni of Bend, Ore., founder of the Flyers Rights consumer-advocacy group, told the department that passengers should get bag-fee refunds any time their luggage doesn’t arrive with them on their flight. Business trips or vacation connections are often too short for luggage to catch up with a traveler, she said.
“The flying public deserves better,” she said. “We believe a delayed bag should be considered a lost bag for purposes of compensating the passenger for any purchases they must make as a result of their not having their bags arrive with them leaving them no choice but to move forward with their plans and purchase their ‘essential items’ for their journey.”
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