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DOT's passenger rights laws actually have teeth, experts say

Hefty fines levied this week by the Department of Transportation against big travel companies are sending a message that regulations looking out for fliers finally have teeth, industry observers said.

“It’s the start of a new era for passenger protections. I don’t think any DOT in history has ever taken on airline passenger protections like this one has,” said Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org.

“The rules that have come on board are some of the strongest that we’ve had for passenger rights,” added Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com.

On Tuesday, the DOT fined Royal Jordanian Airlines $70,000; EgyptAir $60,000; and Royal Air Maroc $60,000 after reviewing their websites and finding various violations of U.S. airline passenger protection rules, such as not advertising the entire price of the flight and not disclosing bag fees.

On Monday, the agency fined JetBlue $90,000 for not telling passengers on a delayed flight that they could leave the plane as it sat at the gate with the door open.

The incident happened in March on a flight from New York to San Francisco. Boarding began just after 7 p.m., but the flight could not depart and the doors to the aircraft did not close until almost 10 p.m.

Under the DOT’s year-old airline consumer protection rule, carriers must tell passengers if they are able to leave the plane. The announcements must come 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time and every 30 minutes afterward. But a DOT investigation found that passengers on the delayed JetBlue flight were never notified.

“In reference to this fine, we’re very happy. I think that it’s a significant enough fine for one flight that the airlines are going to sit up straighter and take notice and be more careful about these incidents,” Hanni said.

“They just think they can get away with it. They think nobody is watching.”

Banas wondered whether anyone on board the plane even knew they were entitled to leave, so she said broadcasting such incidents would serve as a kind of public service to let consumers know what is within their rights.

She also noted the incident happened on an airline usually considered to be one of the most customer friendly and the same one that made news for keeping travelers on board planes for hours during a winter storm in 2007.

Also on Monday, the DOT fined Orbitz $50,000 for not “clearly and prominently” telling its customers that they may have to pay baggage fees.

DOT’s expanded airline passenger protection rule, which took effect in January, requires carriers and ticket agents to warn travelers who are booking a flight online that additional bag fees may apply. The information must be displayed on the first screen that offers a specific itinerary.

But Orbitz customers may have had to scroll to the bottom of the first webpage to see the disclosure — a violation of the rule, the DOT said.

Hanni emphasized it’s vitally important that travelers find out these fees up front and in a transparent way.

“We get hundreds of calls from people who get stuck with the bag fees at the airport and for one reason or another can’t pay it… college students often don’t have a credit card or often don’t have any extra cash,” Hanni said.

This isn’t the first time the popular booking site has drawn the government’s ire. Last year, DOT fined Orbitz $60,000 for displaying ads that did not adequately disclose information about additional taxes and fees.

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