Everything You Need to Know About the Airlines' Rule 240

••• A flight information display board at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Photo by Benet J. Wilson

Edited by Benet Wilson

The worst has happened: your flight has been canceled and you're stranded at the airport, wondering what you can do. If your cancellation was caused by the airline, you may get help from Rule 240.

What is Rule 240? It's actually something that predates the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required carriers with delayed or canceled flights had to transfer travelers to another carrier if the second one could get them to their final destination more quickly than the original airline.

But it does not cover things like weather, strikes or what the FAA calls "acts of God."

But while the official FAA Rule 240 is no longer required, most airlines have switched to what they call a contract of carriage. This contract outlines what carriers will or will not do if your flight is canceled. Below are details and links to the contracts of carriage for the top five U.S. airlines for domestic flights.

  1. American Airlines contract of carriage: The carrier pledges to get you to your destination in a reasonable time, but warns that its timetables are not guaranteed and it reserves the right to substitute alternate carriers or aircraft and, if necessary, may alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket. Schedules are subject to change without notice. 

  2. Delta Air Lines contract of carriage: Delta promises to use its best efforts to carry a passenger and their baggage with "reasonable dispatch." Times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. Delta may without notice substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, and may alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket in case of necessity. Schedules are subject to change without notice, and the airline notes that it is not responsible or liable for making connections, or for failing to operate any flight according to schedule, or for changing the schedule or any flight.

  1. United Airlines contract of carriage:  United notes that times shown on tickets, timetables, published schedules are not guaranteed. It notes the right to substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, and alter or omit stopping places or connections shown on a traveler's ticket. The airline says it will promptly provide passengers the best available information on delays, cancellations, misconnections and diversions, but UA is not liable for any misstatements or other errors or omissions in connection with providing that information. 

  1. Southwest Airlines contract of carriage: If your flight is cancelled, Southwest offers two options: get you on the next flight with available space or refund the unused part of the fare. The carrier notes that its flight schedules are subject to change without notice, and the times shown on schedules, tickets, and advertising are not guaranteed. 

  2. JetBlue contract of carriage: travelers whose flight is canceled on the carrier have two options; get a full refund or, if it's canceled within four hours of scheduled departure and the cancellation is the airline's fault, travelers will also give customers a $50 credit on the airline. It will re-accommodate passengers on the next available JetBlue flight, but it does not re-accommodate people on other airlines.

Although airlines are required to have a contract of carriage available, sometimes it may not be there. I advise travelers to download a PDF copy of the contract onto your smartphone or tablet -- or even go old-school and print it out -- just in case you find yourself questioning your rights. It will be easier to make your case to the airline if you have the information available.