What the New Airline Passenger Protections Won't Do for You

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It's hard to argue with much of the Department of Transportation's newly expanded passenger protection rules -- an updating of common-sense customer service guidelines.

And it's hard to argue that the department, especially in the person of activist Secretary Ray LaHood, isn't in there swinging for us passengers. He's done a lot of good, but I do want to point out a few areas where these "protections" leave something to be desired.

For more travel news and insights, view Rick Seaney's blog at farecompare.com.

Let's look at the five areas -- tarmac delays; bumping compensation; pricing transparency; 24-hour hold for tickets; and, especially, the new baggage fee refunds, which is getting a lot of attention -- to see where passengers still are getting at least a little short-changed.

1. Bag fee refunds may be too little, too late

This sounds good: The airlines are required to reimburse your baggage fee if they lose your bag. Some airlines already do this if you put in a claim, but it's important to note that "one man's delayed bag is another man's lost luggage." In other words, how long must a bag go missing before it's considered "lost"? The rules don't say. What do you say: Is your bag as good as gone if it's been AWOL for a day, a week, a month?

Something else you should know: The airline's compensation for the contents of your missing bag remains unchanged, but don't expect to collect if you had an iPad or jewelry or important papers or even cash in the bag; most airlines don't cover any of that. Indeed, you are breaking the rules of some carriers, such as American Airlines, if you pack any such valuables in a checked bag.

Reminder: Keep all valuables on your person, never in a bag (remember, when bin space is at a premium, even your carry-on may be checked).

2. The three-hour rule on tarmac delays may not save you time

It was a good idea; instituting a three-hour cap to the time a plane could spend idling on the tarmac, thereby avoiding some of those nightmare air travel scenarios where folks were stuck on planes with dwindling supplies of food and water, and sometimes even overflowing toilets. Now this rule has been extended to international airlines, albeit with a an additional hour added. After all, says a DOT official, it's working. Or is it?

Yes, violations of the three-hour rule have become rare; however, a study released last month suggested the number of canceled flights jumped last year and some (or even many) may be blamed on airlines canceling proactively to avoid the heavy fines levied for flouting the three-hour rule.

In this day and age of near-full capacity planes, a canceled flight can be a nightmarish inconvenience because there just isn't anywhere to put out-of-luck passengers.

3. Don't expect to hit the jackpot with involuntary bumping fees

Maybe you heard that if you are what is called "involuntarily bumped" from your flight, you'll get up to $1,300. It's true, but note the phrase "up to." Depending on the length of the delay you're subjected to, your compensation may "only" be up to $650. Still, it's an improvement.

But say you've been bumped off a flight that cost you $250, and you take the inconvenience cash and refund on your ticket and decide to run to another airline to get to your destination. That last minute walk-up fare could cost you in the neighborhood of $800 or more.

4. Pricing transparency may not be transparent enough for some

I applaud the DOT's mandate for more transparency on pricing and fees, though some feel that at this point everyone knows about bag fees and such. I disagree, and I suspect no amount of transparency will be enough for some.

There may not be enough screen real estate on the beefiest of monitors to "fully" disclose the sushi menu of optional fees today, let alone the tiny smart-phone displays where most will be thumbing in the coming years.

After all, consider how long we've had the 3.4-ounce rule for liquids in effect; and yet, how often do we see folks going through security carrying a liter bottle of water? Some people just do not bother reading, even the not-so-fine-print, especially on the Web.

However, if we can just get the online agencies and airlines to quit putting their base airfare prices in bold face and their total prices (including all taxes and fees) in teeny-tiny print, my bifocals will be happy.

5. 24 hour hold on tickets will save you from hauling out your credit card - or will it?

According to the DOT, all airlines will be required to "allow reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or cancelled without penalty, for at least 24 hours after the reservation is made," but must you put down a credit card or not? If you must, which all online booking sites require today, well, a lot of airlines already permit this.

Still, the big question is: Will your card be dinged immediately, then refunded within 24 hours? Or will the refund come along in, say, the second or third billing cycle? As I noted, while many airlines already have this 24-hour rule (though at least one has a four-hour "cooling off" period), I'd hesitate to book four different flight options and cancel three of them if it meant you wouldn't be seeing your money for a few months.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.