Don't Get Stranded at the Airport

The summer travel season is here, and Americans are expected to take more than 211 million air trips in the next three months.

So it pays to know what your rights are -- and aren't. Every few years, there's some horror story about passengers stranded on the tarmac and members of Congress get all fired up about passing a passenger's bill of rights. But then … they wimp out. However, you do have some rights. And if you've got gumption, you can pretend you've got others.

Unfortunately, if your flight is delayed or canceled, the airline is not obligated to do anything for you. Even if it's the airline's own darn fault. One nifty way to guard against this is to check the reliability of a given flight before you book, by looking at the on-time performance code. Of course it's not in plain English. It's a one-digit code that tells you how often the flight has been within 15 minutes of its scheduled arrival time over the past month. For example, if the code is "7," that means the flight was on time 70 to 79 percent of the time.

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Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future success, so be ready to grab some extra rights for yourself through sheer will. If your flight is delayed or canceled, ask for stuff. Be that squeaky wheel. Ask the airline if it offers hotel rooms, meal vouchers or telephone calling cards to stranded passengers.

There is no law requiring airlines to do this, but many do. They are more sympathetic if the delay is their fault than if it's caused by severe weather. One study showed airlines respond best when passengers make specific requests. Don't just angrily ask to be "compensated." Instead, decide what you want and calmly and politely ask for it.

A couple years ago, my parents paid for the entire extended family of 26 to travel to Hawaii together. We got to the airport bright and early only to learn that our flight was canceled because the airplane door was jammed. We had to wait 15 hours for the next flight. We missed our connection to Kauai. We had to stay in a scuzzy Oahu hotel that night. And we lost the money we'd paid for the first night in our Kauai hotel. Sound like a legitimate grievance? I thought so. I wrote a nice letter asking for free round-trip tickets for my parents to return to Hawaii at their leisure. The airline said yes (and was probably relieved that I didn't ask for more).

If your flight is delayed or canceled and you decide to search for a flight on another airline, you may have better luck calling the toll free number than going to the ticket counter. If you find a suitable flight but it's more expensive, ask your original airline to "endorse your ticket" to the new carrier. By doing this, you may save yourself from having to pay the higher fare. Sometimes airlines will honor each other's endorsements as a matter of good will, but they're not obligated to do so.

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