With disputes between airlines and the passengers that fly with them increasing, it’s always good to understand your rights as a traveler. Airlines are not inclined to share policies that favor the customers they serve, but there are myriad rules and regulations from the U.S. Department of Transportation they must follow. Below are eight rights that passengers have—but might not know about—when things go wrong.
U.S. airlines fly nearly 24,000 flights a day. The odds of passengers being on an oversold flight are pretty slim. But when it happens, the airlines prefer to first seek volunteers to take a later flight for vouchers that can be used on future travel. Not only do you get compensation, but you get priority seating on the next available flight. Depending on the airline (and how desperate they are for the seat), you can ask for perks like first/business class seats, access to a premium lounge, and food vouchers.
If the bumping is involuntary, travelers are entitled to receive boarding compensation by check or cash, depending on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay. The key here is that the airlines can't give you vouchers, which tend to expire after a year. They must give you cash or a check.
If the airline gets you to your final destination within an hour of the originally scheduled arrival time, a traveler will not be compensated. If the substitute transportation arrives between one and two hours after the original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), an airline must pay an amount equal to 200 percent of the original one-way fare, with a maximum of $675. If you arrive more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation hits 400 percent of the one-way fare, with a maximum of $1,350 (as of 2019).
Those using frequent-flyer award tickets or a ticket issued by a consolidator will be compensated based on the lowest cash, check, or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service on the flight. And travelers can keep the original ticket and either use it on another flight or ask for an involuntary refund for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. Finally, airlines must refund payments for services on the original flight, including seat selection and checked baggage.
Flight Delay or Cancellation
Compensation for a delay or cancellation depends on the reason and the airline in question. If there's a weather delay, there’s not much that the airline can do. But if the delay is for manmade reasons, including mechanical, compensation depends on the airline you’re flying.
All airlines have a contract of carriage that outlines what they will do. Travelers can ask for things, including meals, phone calls, or a hotel stay. They can also ask an airline to endorse the ticket over to a new carrier that has seat availability, and legacy carriers can rebook you on their first flight to your destination on which space is available without charge if you ask.
Ticket Changes or Cancellations
You’ve found what looks to be a great fare and purchased your ticket. The Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations allow travelers who have booked a flight at least seven days in advance to make changes or even cancel the reservations within 24 hours without being hit with a high cancellation fee. Or if an airline refuses to carry a passenger for any reason, they can apply for a refund, even if they bought a nonrefundable ticket.
Flight Changed by Airliine
Airlines sometimes have scheduled flight changes or aircraft changes that force them to re-accommodate travelers on a different flight. If the change does not work, travelers have the right to propose a schedule that works better for them. It’s better to call the airline directly to make the change. Let them know you’re calling about a flight change so you’re not charged to speak with an agent. If the change is significant (like a major time change, a longer layover, or even an overnight stay), you can request a refund.
The basic rule is that if an airline loses your luggage, you will be reimbursed, depending on the type of flight. The maximum reimbursement for U.S.domestic flights is $3,300 and up to $1,742 for international flights (as of 2019).
For international travel not originating in the U.S., the Warsaw Convention applies, which limits liability to approximately $9.07 per pound up to $640 per bag for checked baggage and $400 per customer for unchecked baggage.
Most airlines will also provide basic necessities, like toothpaste and other personal items, to hold you over. You also have the right to ask for reimbursement to buy replacement clothes in case you were traveling for an event.
If your luggage is damaged, go immediately to the airline’s office in the baggage claim area. You will need to file a report and document any issues. It helps if you can submit photos of the luggage before the flight. If the airline is at fault, you can negotiate a settlement to either repair the damage or replace the bag if it can’t be fixed.
Stuck on the Tarmac
On Jan. 16, 1999, thousands of passengers were trapped for up to 10 hours on Northwest Airlines jets stranded after a major snowstorm at Detroit Metro Airport. That led to a $7.1 million settlement to those travelers and the creation of DOT regulations on how long passengers can be forced to stay on a delayed plane.
A similar incident happened to JetBlue at its JFK Airport hub on Valentine’s Day, 2007. The CEO of JetBlue announced a $30 million initiative to rewrite its procedures for handling flight disruptions and create a customer bill of rights.
DOT rules don’t allow U.S. airline domestic flights to stay on a tarmac for more than three hours, but there are exceptions.
- The pilot feels there is a safety or security reason why the aircraft can’t go back to the gate and deplane passengers.
- Air traffic control feels that moving an aircraft to a gate would significantly disrupt airport operations.
International flights operated by U.S. carriers are required by DOT to establish and comply with their own limit on the length of tarmac delays. But passengers on both types of flights must be given food and water no later than two hours after the delay begins. Lavatories must remain operable and medical attention must be available if needed.