On Thursday, the Department of Transportation unveiled its most concrete endeavor yet to fix air travel: an online dashboard featuring 10 U.S. airlines with green check marks next to the services they offer when flights are delayed or canceled for reasons within their control. The website, which is reminiscent of the sort of brand comparison charts offered up by Consumer Reports magazine, reveals, for example, that JetBlue and Hawaiian Airlines will, in some circumstances, rebook passengers on another airline when a flight is canceled, but that Southwest and Alaska will not.
White House and Department of Transportation officials said that the mere idea of an interactive dashboard compelled airlines to make major changes in just two weeks. Ahead of its launch, Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. transportation secretary, sent a letter urging airlines to commit to a number of measures, such as hotel vouchers. He also told them that, along with the proposal he made last month to update federal guidelines on refunds, which he will revisit in November, he was “contemplating” making new rules.
“Today, the Department of Transportation officially launched the dashboard, and we’re proud to report that airlines vastly improved their plans,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, on Thursday.
Given the other sorts of proposals that have been floating around — fining airlines $55,000 per passenger for cancellations caused by staffing; taking the European approach and requiring airlines to pay travelers hundreds of dollars for some canceled flights; and reassigning airline enforcement to state attorneys general — a chart might seem like a small step. Here’s how to understand its impact.
What actually just changed?
Depends whom you ask. According to the White House, the Department of Transportation and some consumer advocates, a lot has changed.
A few weeks ago, none of the major airlines guaranteed that they would cover meals or hotels when they were responsible for cancellations or significant delays, Ms. Jean-Pierre said. Now eight cover hotels and nine cover meals. In a background briefing on Wednesday, senior administration officials said no airline had offered complimentary ground transportation to and from a hotel for passengers stuck overnight. Faced with the dashboard, which unearths airline policies previously hidden in obscure PDFs, seven committed to doing so, they said, and many also altered their policies on rebooking passengers on other airlines. The officials commended airlines for changing so much, so quickly.
But according to the airlines, not much has changed. Most said that they did little beyond tweaking some language to more clearly describe policies that were already in place. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines said that in response to the letter from Mr. Buttigieg, they clarified their rules on when passengers would receive compensation for canceled or delayed flights. But, they said, they had not made any substantive policy changes and had already offered hotel vouchers, meal vouchers and rebookings on other airlines if they could not provide reasonable alternatives themselves. United Airlines said it had shortened the length of delays required for a meal voucher by an hour, but that other policies were unchanged. Southwest said it had made no substantive changes, but rather updated its customer service plan to better reflect policies already in place.
On the ground transportation front, a Delta representative said it was misleading for the Department of Transportation to take credit for the change as Delta had always provided compensation for taxi services. Similarly, a United spokeswoman said providing such transportation was a “longstanding United policy.”
“Perhaps the DOT means that it wasn’t spelled out to their liking on the public facing website previously?” the United spokeswoman wrote.
The Department of Transportation said that airlines offered some of these policies, but many had not previously committed to them in ways that were enforceable. For example, some policies stated that the airlines would only make their “best efforts” or “reasonable efforts” to provide vouchers, instead of assuring travelers that vouchers would be provided.
Were airlines already committed to rebooking flights on a competitor if the original flight was significantly delayed for reasons within the airline’s control?
Several major carriers say they are committed to rebooking flights on another airline, though it’s unclear how often they have done this during the pandemic travel chaos. Paul Hudson, president of Flyersrights.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to consumer rights, said that over the past several decades, airlines typically only did this for “A-list travelers” flying on one of the legacy carriers. In 2016, Mr. Hudson’s group unsuccessfully petitioned the Department of Transportation to formalize the “reciprocity rule,” which has been voluntary since 1978.
“This is a big deal,” he said of the fact that major carriers are now committing to book passengers on other airlines, along with guaranteeing hotel and meal vouchers, other areas where they often let passengers down. Given that airlines will only rebook on a different airline if they can’t provide a reasonable alternative on their own — and sometimes their definition of reasonable, Mr. Hudson said, is far from reasonable — he did wonder how often it would happen.
What happens if the airlines don’t offer what’s on the chart?
The hope seems to be that by publishing airlines’ promises, the airlines will be more likely to adhere to them. Asked if he was shaming the airlines into doing the right thing, Mr. Buttigieg, in a recent phone interview, offered a more positive framing.
“There’s no shame in doing the right thing,” he said. He also called the dashboard a “tool for transparency” — language echoed by Ms. Jean-Pierre’s announcement that the goal was to “give Americans more transparency about what airlines owe them.”
If airlines don’t meet the commitment stated in the chart, the Department of Transportation said passengers could submit a complaint. Of course, that won’t immediately help.
Airlines often give credits instead of refunds. If enacted, will the Transportation Department’s August policy proposal force airlines to automatically give a cash refund?
No. The proposal tries to clarify the conditions under which travelers are owed a full refund instead of a credit or voucher, if a flight is significantly altered. Such alterations include a three-hour delay for a domestic flight, a six-hour delay for an international flight, the addition of a layover or a switch in the departure or destination airport.
The proposal, which Mr. Buttigieg will revisit in November, does not currently stipulate that the money has to be automatically refunded if passengers choose to cancel instead of fly. If it becomes a federal requirement, some airlines may choose to interpret it this way. Others may still require passengers to call their airline to make this happen.
Are airlines capable of fundamentally changing without fines or stricter rules?
The airlines say they are, noting that they have already made major changes to schedules and staffing, and as a result, things have gotten better, with cancellations falling notably in recent weeks. Some analysts back them up, arguing that the airlines are implicitly incentivized to reduce cancellations, given that they cost money and create major headaches.
But nearly 40 state attorneys general don’t think so. Just as Department of Transportation officials were giving a press briefing on their recent successes getting the airlines to change, the attorneys general published a letter arguing that the Department of Transportation’s approach is so weak that it should be stripped of its ability to regulate aviation. State attorneys general — and perhaps another federal agency — should be given that role instead, they wrote.
In a follow-up email, the New Hampshire attorney general, John M. Formella, who was among those who signed the letter, offered his review of the interactive dashboard. “Will the new dashboard give paying air customers a timeline of when the Transportation Secretary and his colleagues will start to enforce the law and provide them some basic consumer protections?” he wrote.
The week before the dashboard launch, Mr. Buttigieg said he was open to fining the airlines and called fines “an important part of our tool kit,” which he has used in the past, but should be part of “a bigger framework.”
How much money did airlines get from the government during the pandemic?
Since the start of the pandemic, Congress has provided passenger airlines with $54 billion in grants to pay workers, and billions more in loans. That assistance, which came with limits such as a temporary ban on widespread layoffs and stock buybacks, helped the industry weather a long slowdown before the recovery gained sustained momentum this year.
Travel has been particularly strong this spring and summer. Each of the six largest U.S. airlines reported record revenues in the second quarter of the year, which ended in June. Those airlines also reported their first quarterly profits, unassisted by federal aid, since the pandemic began. But those profits were far from record-breaking, as the industry faced higher costs for everything from onboard snacks to labor.
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