WASHINGTON — Like almost everything else related to air travel in recent weeks, government proposals unveiled Wednesday rankled airlines and could be bittersweet for an already sour traveling public.
Under one new rule, passengers who get bumped off overbooked flights will be eligible to receive twice as much compensation from U.S. airlines. But ticket prices are expected to spike as a result of another rule designed to ease congestion tied to the New York area's clogged airports.
The Transportation Department said the passenger compensation increase is its latest effort to bolster consumer protection at a time when airline delays are flirting with record levels. It applies to more planes, covering most aircraft that carry more than 30 passengers.
Travelers forced onto another flight that takes them to their domestic destination more than two hours after their original arrival time will be paid the full price of their fare up to $800 under a new Transportation Department rule that goes into effect next month. If bumped passengers arrive less than two hours late, the limit is $400.
The arrival time limit is four hours for international flights, and the amount of the payments are in addition to the value of the passenger's ticket, which can be used for alternate transportation or be refunded if unused.
"It's hard to compensate for a missed family occasion or business opportunity, but this rule will ensure fliers are more fairly reimbursed for their inconvenience," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in a statement. The previous limits had not been raised since 1978.
The latest government action comes on the heels of maintenance-related investigations that unveiled a cozy relationship between carriers and regulators and led to the grounding of hundreds of planes. More groundings were announced Wednesday: Commuter airline company Trans States Airlines Inc., which operates flight under the names AmericanConnection, United Express and US Airways Express, grounded 24 jets because they do not meet safety standards.
At the same time, there has never been a safer period in history to travel on domestic airlines — no one died during 2007 in accidents among larger scheduled U.S. airlines and smaller commuter aircraft, and deaths in private plane accidents dropped to 491, their lowest in more than 40 years, the National Transportation Safety Board reported Wednesday.
An exception was on-demand aircraft: Charters, air taxis and tours and medical flights with a patient aboard saw accident deaths jump from 16 in 2006 to 43 in 2007.
Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said the new fees will make it harder for airlines to justify serving small- and medium-sized communities based on their remote locations, airport facilities and other factors.
Under the congestion-easing plan, carriers will be forced to auction off some of their existing slots at LaGuardia over the next five years and possibly retire others.
In 2007, the three New York-area airports had the lowest on-time arrival rates, and aviation officials say delays there cascade throughout the system and cause 75 percent of all delays.
The nation's largest carriers control most of the slots at LaGuardia and don't want to lose or sell them, analysts said.
While the plan is meant to provide some relief to delayed passengers, the rules are expected to raise fares.
"It will have the perverse effect of helping (airlines') bottom lines, and it will lead to higher (ticket) prices," said Bob Harrell of New York travel and aviation consulting firm Harrell Associates.
Industry groups oppose the auctions because it "will create winners and losers within their membership … (and) a lot of uncertainty," said Daniel Petree, dean of the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.