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Airlines are ordered to give full refunds instead of vouchers and to stop hiding fees

Travelers and their luggage in a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport in August 2023.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
Travelers and their luggage in a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport in August 2023.

Updated April 24, 2024 at 12:26 PM ET

WASHINGTON — In an effort to crack down on airlines that charge passengers steep fees to check bags and change flights, the U.S. Department of Transportation has announced new regulations aimed at expanding consumer protections.

One of the final rules announced Wednesday requires airlines to show the full price of travel before passengers pay for their tickets. The other will force airlines to provide prompt cash refunds when flights are canceled or significantly changed.

"Passengers deserve to know upfront what costs they are facing and should get their money back when an airline owes them - without having to ask," said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement announcing the new rules.

Surprise junk fees have become a large and growing source of revenue for airlines in recent years, according to the DOT.

"Today's announcements will require airlines to both provide passengers better information about costs before ticket purchase, and promptly provide cash refunds to passengers when they are owed — not only saving passengers time and money, but also preventing headaches," Buttigieg said.

The airline industry is unlikely to welcome the new rules. At a hearing on the proposed fee rulein March 2023, an industry lobbying group representing American, Delta and United said it would be too difficult for airlines to disclose their charges more clearly.

"The amount of unwanted and unneeded information forced upon passengers" by the new policy would only cause "confusion and frustration," warned Doug Mullen, the deputy general counsel at Airlines for America. "Very few, if any, need or want this information, and especially when they are initially trying to understand schedule and fare options."

But the DOT insists its new rule will give consumers the information they need to better understand the true costs of air travel.

"I believe this is to the benefit of the sector as a whole," Buttigieg said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, because passengers will have "more confidence in the aviation sector."

The new rules require airlines to disclose all baggage, change, and cancellation fees, and to share that information with third-party booking sites and travel agents.

The regulation also prohibits bait-and-switch tactics, the DOT says, that disguise the true cost of flights by advertising a low base fare that does not include all mandatory fees.

"This is really about making sure that we create a better experience for passengers, and a stronger aviation sector in the United States," Buttigieg said in the NPR interview.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.