Marianne Lindsey, a spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines, says the carrier still uses Rule 240, and in the event of a delay or cancellation, even bumps passengers to a higher class on Alaska Air or on another carrier if that's the only seat available on the next flight.
But if a delay, diversion or cancellation is caused by a so-called force majeure, in legal parlance, the airline typically doesn't have to do much for the passenger. Events deemed outside of the airline's control usually include weather, earthquakes and wars. But over the years, the definition has expanded. Southwest, for instance, also defines "mechanical difficulties by entities other than Carrier" as an act of God.
Some consumer advocates question such definitions, but Mike Boyd, president of airline consulting firm Boyd Group International, says airlines are not always in the wrong.
"When you decide to fly, you bear some responsibility for the inconvenience that can bring," Boyd says. "You're putting yourself in a metal tube. … It's not entirely an airlines' fault when a thunderstorm diverts them to Dubuque."
Airlines are trying
George Novak, director of Safety, Borders and Security for InterVISTAS Consulting, says airlines actually do what they can to keep customers from filing complaints against them with the Transportation Department.
"They do want return customers," he says. "They don't throw around free tickets like they used to, but they do try to work with passengers for the most part."
And sometimes, they admit when they've made a mistake.
Nick van Terheyden says he recently missed his connection in Charlotte because his US Airways flight out of Washington's Dulles Airport took off too late.
There was no point in catching a later flight to his final destination in Roanoke, Va., because there was no way he'd make his meeting. So he marched to customer service and asked for a return flight to Dulles — plus a full refund.
He got the return flight but not the full refund. Instead, the agent reimbursed him for the unused legs of the trip. "It was better than nothing, but what I would have expected/wanted was a full refund," says the Laytonsville, Md., resident.
Van Terheyden, chief medical officer for a health care consulting firm, admits he has not read US Airways' contract of carriage. But even if he had, he might not have been able to decipher what he was entitled to. The contract does include a section on refunds, but it doesn't specifically address van Terheyden's situation.
"We don't spell out every single permutation but give clear guidance," says US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr.
If a passenger misses a connection due to a delay or cancellation and is returned to the origin city by the carrier, the airline deems it as a "trip in vain" or "futile trip" and refunds the full ticket value, says US Airways spokesman Lehmacher.
He had not reviewed all the specific details of van Terheyden's case but says "that airline employees, too, are human and sometimes we do make mistakes — especially when you have a delayed or canceled flight and our employees are trying to give each customer the attention they deserve."
Van Terheyden says if any money is owed to him, he'd rather have the airline donate it to charity.
What to do if it happens to you