Editor's note: Due to COVID-19, most airlines have changed or waived cancellation fees for travel in March and April, 2020.
You have run into some bad luck: Your flight has been canceled and you're stranded at the airport. What can you do? If your cancellation was caused by the airline, then take a look at your airline's contract of carriage. In earlier days of airline travel, these rights were defined within the Federal Aviation Administration's Rule 240, which has been replaced with each airline's version of a contract of carriage.
Take a look at the fine print on the flight cancellation policies outlined in the contracts of carriage for the top five U.S. airlines for domestic flights: American, Delta, United, Southwest, and JetBlue.
Contract of Carriage
Before you delve into the contracts of carriage for airlines, it would help if you knew what a contract of carriage is. Simply, it is a contract between a carrier and a passenger. The carrier usually refers to airline carriers but does include train travel and public transportation. Contracts of carriage typically define the rights, duties, and liabilities of passengers and carriers, addressing topics such as fares, boarding, and what constitutes acts of God or force majeure. Items out of the airline's control usually include weather conditions, riots, civil unrest, embargoes, war, work strikes or stoppages, government demand, shortages of labor or fuel, or any other condition beyond control or not reasonably foreseen.
Among a litany of items, this contract outlines what carriers will or will not do if your flight is canceled. Although airlines are required to have a contract of carriage, sometimes it may not be easy to find or access when you need it. To cover yourself, download a PDF copy of the contract onto your smartphone or print it out just in case you find yourself questioning your rights during an upcoming trip. It will be easier to make your case to the airline if you have the information available.
The FAA's Rule 240 predates the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, when the FAA required carriers with delayed or canceled flights 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 did not cover things like weather, strikes, or acts of God.
American Airlines calls its rules the conditions of carriage. In general, when your flight is canceled or a delay will cause you to miss your connection, American will rebook you on the next flight with available seats. If you decide not to fly because your flight was delayed or canceled, American will refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees. If the delay was caused by American, they may handle hotel accommodations for you.
"If the delay is our fault or you're diverted to another city, and we don't board before 11:59 p.m. local time on your scheduled arrival day, we'll arrange an overnight stay or cover the cost of an approved hotel, if available."
Delta Air Lines
In Delta's contract of carriage if there is a flight cancellation, diversion, delay of greater than 90 minutes, or that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta can cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment. If the passenger does not request cancellation and refund of the remaining portion of the ticket, Delta will transport the passenger to the destination on Delta’s next flight on which seats are available in the class of service originally purchased. At Delta’s sole discretion and if acceptable to the passenger, Delta may arrange for the passenger to travel on another carrier or via ground transportation. If space on the next available flight is available only in a higher class of service than purchased, Delta will transport the passenger on the flight, although Delta reserves the right to upgrade other passengers on the flight according to its upgrade priority policy to make space in the class of service originally purchased.
Like American, when a passenger’s travel is interrupted for more than four hours after the scheduled departure time as a result of flight cancellation or delay, the airline may make arrangements for hotel accommodations or ground transportation. You may be eligible for a voucher for one night’s lodging when the delay is during the period of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
According to United Airline's contract of carriage, the airline states 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.
But when a passenger’s ticket is affected because of "irregular operations" caused by United, the airline will transport the passenger on its own flights, subject to availability, to the destination, next stopover point, or transfer point shown on its portion of the ticket, without stopover in the same class of service, at no additional cost to the passenger or may arrange for the passenger to travel on another carrier. United may, if acceptable to the passenger, arrange for the passenger to travel via ground transportation. In the event a passenger misses an onward connecting flight on which space is reserved because the United did not operate its flight due to irregular operations or a schedule change, United is responsible to arrange for carriage of the passenger or to make a refund.
United also makes allowances for amenities like snacks, meals, lodging, and ground transportation for passengers affected by United's irregular operations and a delay that exceeds four hours between the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time.
In Southwest Airlines' contract of carriage, if your flight is canceled, Southwest offers three options. You can get on the next flight with available space, be refunded the unused part of the fare, or accept a credit for future travel. 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.
In the event Southwest diverts any flight, the airline will take reasonable steps to transport its passengers to the final destination or to provide reasonable accommodations. At times, without prior notice to passengers, Southwest may need to substitute other aircraft and may change, add, or omit intermediate stops. Carrier cannot guarantee that passengers will make connections to their other flights. In the event of flight schedule changes or service withdrawals, the airline will attempt to notify affected passengers as early as possible.
As for JetBlue's contract of carriage, travelers whose flight is canceled on the carrier have two options: You can 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. If the flight is canceled after the scheduled departure then passengers can get a $100 credit for future JetBlue travel. JetBlue also gives monetary credit from $50 to $250 for future JetBlue travel if there are departure delays from to three hours to six or more hours that occur due to a "controllable irregularity." You may also be eligible for monetary credits if there are ground delays on arrival and on departure, too.
Following a cancellation, you will find that JetBlue will re-accommodate passengers on the next available JetBlue flight, but it does not re-accommodate people on other airlines.