You get to the airport two hours early and check the board. Half-hour delay. You know where this is headed.
Now you’re standing in the security line and when you glance at the board once more, it’s an hour. At the gate, it turns into two hours and three hours and four. By the time you get to your destination, you’ve missed the gathering you’d been anticipating for months. And when you call the airline the next day to inquire about a refund, it’s a transfer and an hour on hold and a maddening pushback.
Only in America.
No, seriously, only in America. As Globe travel writer Christopher Muther recently wrote, there are clear-cut rules in Canada, the European Union, and China for getting a refund if your flight is canceled or delayed.
It’s time to join the civilized world. And a proposed Department of Transportation rule would get us a good way there.
The rule would replace a vague dictum that airlines offer refunds for “significant delays” — a standard easily manipulated or ignored by the carriers — with a set of hard-and-fast rules. A “significant delay” would be one that pushes back a domestic departure or arrival three hours or more. For international flights, the standard would be six hours. Passengers would be reimbursed, too, if the airlines pile on extra connections.
The department is collecting public comment now. Observers say it could be two years or more before a new rule is in place. The agency should accelerate the timeline as best it can.
The experience of the past two-and-a-half years has demonstrated the need for clearer policies. Air travelers have faced enormous disruption during the pandemic. And too often, the airlines have refused to compensate customers for their trouble.
That has shown up in a deluge of complaints to the DOT about delayed and denied refunds and flight credits. But the department has not covered itself in glory in this period either.
Consumer advocates say Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has not made full use of his existing authority to crack down on the airlines’ bad behavior.
“This summer was the worst customer service year we’ve ever seen — tens of thousands of canceled flights,” said William J. McGee, senior aviation fellow for the American Economic Liberties Project, in an interview with the editorial board. “He has yet to fine a single US airline so much as one dollar.”
(The department did propose a $25.55 million fine for Air Canada after “extreme delays” in providing customer refunds at the start of the pandemic, a figure that was later slashed to $4.5 million).
Critics say the department’s light touch is indicative of a decades-long problem of inadequate oversight.
At the moment, though, there is nowhere else to turn. A 1978 law deregulating the airline industry included a provision delegating regulatory power to the federal government alone. The idea was to prevent states from creating rules that would derail Congress’s bid to open up the industry to new entrants and all the benefits of competition. And the approach made sense at the time.
But the industry has not taken the shape lawmakers imagined. It is now heavily consolidated. That means there’s not much market pressure on the big four — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines — to treat their customers well. With the DOT applying only modest pressure of its own, it’s time to give one of the most effective enforcers of consumer rights a chance: state attorneys general.
In late August, a bipartisan group of 38 attorneys general, including Massachusetts’ Maura Healey, wrote a letter to House and Senate leaders urging Congress to allow all 50 of the states’ top lawyers to file suits against wayward airlines.
“Americans,” the letter read, “are justifiably frustrated that federal government agencies charged with overseeing airline consumer protection are unable or unwilling to hold the airline industry accountable and to swiftly investigate complaints submitted to the US DOT.”
The DOT is undoubtedly moving in the right direction with its new proposed rule. And the letter acknowledges that. But that’s no reason to continue with the airlines’ special exemption from state-level oversight.
Long-suffering air travelers could use all the advocates they can get.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.